South Carolina basketball beat writer David Cloninger looks at every other team in the SEC as the season approaches
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Anthony Grant (99-71, sixth season; 175-96, ninth season)
2013-14 record (SEC finish): 13-19 (7-11)
2013-14 postseason: None
He’s outta here: Trevor Releford (senior, 18.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg); Nick Jacobs (transferred to Georgia Tech, 8.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg); Algie Key (transferred to Washburn, 3.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg); Carl Engstrom (professional overseas, 1.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg); Isiah Wilson (senior, 1.5 ppg, 1.5 rpg)
He’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-7 F Riley Norris; 6-2 G Ricky Tarrant (transfer from Tulane, sat out last year); 6-9 F Michael Kessens (transfer from Longwood, sat out last year); 6-7 F Jeff Garrett; 5-10 G Justin Coleman; 6-4 G Devin Mitchell; 6-7 F John Gibson (transfer from Xavier (La.), sat out last year)
(*Note: 6-3 G Christophe Varidel transferred in from Chaminade but will not play due to medical reasons. His college career is over.)
Top returners: 6-1 G Retin Obasohan (9.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg); 6-8 F Shannon Hale (8.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg); 6-6 G Rodney Cooper (7.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg)
A three-year run of 20-win seasons ended last year, injuries and an aggressive schedule taking its toll on Grant and his Crimson Tide. Alabama didn’t win a game outside Tuscaloosa and losing nine of the final 13 games had some thinking that Grant wouldn’t survive the offseason.
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The speculation ended quickly, with athletic director Bill Battle pledging his support for Grant the day after the season ended. Citing Grant’s character and leadership, Battle said that the program wasn’t adrift or in trouble, and that he was pleased with what lay ahead.
Now for Grant to take that backing and move forward. Alabama basketball may be considered a mid-level sport on a campus that cherishes football above all, but the Tide have a strong tradition. Last year was the first losing season in 14 years and the most losses in one season in 45 years. Grant has won and been to the postseason three times in five years, but only one NCAA tournament. He’s hoping for a second with a re-tooled roster.
The Tide lost Varidel before ever playing a game, depriving them of a long-range shooter and a player that had been a part of a deep NCAA tournament run. He first gained fame as part of Florida Gulf Coast’s “Dunk City” team that reached the 2013 Sweet 16, but an injury limited him to five games at Chaminade and continued to bother him during preseason practice at Alabama. Still, Grant found other prizes on the transfer list, and is hoping that the combined talents of them plus a large freshman class will replace what he lost in Releford.
What’s known is that the Tide will play stingy defense and leave their opponents feeling like they just went 10 rounds with a Kodiak bear. What’s also known is that Grant is a champion of the SEC’s credo to be more aggressive in scheduling non-conference games, which is why he’ll play Southern Miss, Iowa State, Maryland/Arizona State, at Xavier, at Wichita State and UCLA.
What’s unknown is how well the Tide, never a great shooting or scoring team, will be able to navigate that stretch before the SEC. Once conference play begins, Alabama has three winnable games – Texas A&M, at Tennessee, at South Carolina – before playing Kentucky, Arkansas, Florida and Kentucky again within a five-game stretch. If the Tide haven’t gotten too bogged down in the non-conference stretch and can escape that murderer’s row in the SEC, they have a chance to finish very strongly.
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Kristy Curry (14-16, second year; 323-165, 16th year)
2013-14 record (SEC finish): 14-16 (7-9)
2013-14 postseason: None
She’s outta here: Shafontaye Myers (senior, 14.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg); Daisha Simmons (transferred to Seton Hall, 13.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg); Brittany Jack (released from scholarship, 2.2 ppg, 0.8 rpg); Emily Davis (released from scholarship, 1.7 ppg, 1.4 rpg); Courtney Hunter (released from scholarship, 0.2 ppg, 0.6 rpg)
She’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-0 F Quanetria Bolton; 5-8 So. Breanna Hayden (transfer from Baylor, eligible in January); 6-0 G Hannah Cook; 5-8 G Meoshonti Knight; 6-3 F Diamante Martinez
Top returners: 6-0 F Ashley Williams (12.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg); 5-7 RSo. G Karyla Middlebrook (5.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg); 6-2 F Nikki Hegstetter (5.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg)
It was all set to be a positive offseason for Alabama women’s basketball.
Long the doormat of the SEC – the Crimson Tide hadn’t finished higher than eighth in 14 years – Curry’s first team finished a surprising 7-9 in the league, tied for seventh. Alabama beat No. 9 Kentucky on its home floor and stunned Top-25 teams Vanderbilt and LSU as the season closed, leaving a lot of hope for this season. Curry brought in four solid recruits and a transfer from Baylor and the thought was that the Tide might not make a drastic move, especially in a stupendous league, but it wouldn’t be long before they would challenge for a top-four finish.
Then came Daisha Simmons.
The extremely messy situation gave Alabama a huge black eye (Here), although it eventually caved to national criticism and did the right thing. It certainly didn’t help that Curry told three other players they were being released from their scholarships.
In a new-coach situation, releasing players happens all the time. Coaches see that players recruited under the previous regime don’t match their style and advise them to head somewhere else, and they have the advantage of the scholarship stipulation – it’s a one-year renewable contract, not a four- or five-year promise. Is it fair? No. But it’s the way it’s been done and will continue to be done. Had the Simmons case not occurred, it wouldn’t be that big a deal.
But the Simmons case did occur, and it really painted Curry and Alabama as harsh and cruel, and undid a lot of the good feeling the program created last year. Alabama was picked to finish 13th by the media due to losing its top two scorers, but the feeling was that Curry could surprise a few folks. She did it last year, right?
Now she has to do it with a target painted on her back. To her credit, being a first-year coach didn’t leave Curry much of an option with the Simmons situation. She needed to back her administration as a new coach on the block, and it was their decision not to initially back the waiver. “I really didn’t have that much to do with it,” Curry said at SEC Media Days. “Got thrown under the bus pretty good, didn’t I?”
Alabama is moving on and Curry will try to take another step forward in her second season in the SEC. Her team is young, but she has several returnees who tasted winning last year after being losers for so long.
“Our goal will always be to be in the postseason at Alabama,” Curry said. “I think we love the underdog role. Certainly, last year gave our players some confidence that they hadn’t had in quite some time. There’s no other way to get confidence than having experienced it.”
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