February 17, 2011 8:29:00 AM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- University of Alabama men''s basketball coach Anthony Grant doesn''t want to talk about the Crimson Tide threatening to run away with a division basketball title.
He also isn''t particularly interested in addressing the turnaround the Alabama has made in his second season, because it''s not over yet.
"I think our team has grown over the course of the year," Grant said. "I felt like we were making some strides last year. Any time you have a year under your belt, it helps. We''re in the middle of it so I''m not in a position where I can sit back and reflect. We''ve still got a long way to go."
A division title is within reach. The Crimson Tide (16-8, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) has four fewer losses than any other Western Division team with six league games remaining. Half of those are against West teams, including tonight at LSU.
Alabama hasn''t won a division title since 2005, and the Tide hasn''t been to the NCAA tournament or had a winning SEC mark in the past four seasons. With power ratings still hovering in the 80s, a tournament bid is far from a certainty.
Still it''s a marked turnaround in Grant''s second season, even if he''s not prepared to declare it so. This time last year, Alabama was 3-7 in league games and had lost four straight. Now, the Crimson Tide has won 11 of its last 13 games with stingy defense and Tony Mitchell''s hot streak. Only Florida (9-2) in the East has a better SEC mark.
It''s Alabama''s best league start since opening the 2001-02 season 9-2. "We''re in a good place right now," forward JaMychal Green said. "We control our destiny."
Such a position seemed unlikely after Alabama went 6-10 in the SEC during Grant''s debut season, which he has described as "like coaching 13 freshmen." It was far-fetched when the Tide capped a three-game losing streak with a loss to Saint Peter''s and had its RPI balloon to the 300 range.
That was then.
"Everybody''s starting to buy in more and more," Mitchell said, "and everybody''s starting to sell out for the team."
The sophomore forward has scored 20-plus points in each of the last four games. Mitchell and Green are both averaging more than 17 points against SEC teams.
Fans have certainly taken notice at a football-dominated school. Alabama has sold out two of its last three games at Coleman Coliseum, where the Tide is 13-0. Alabama filled the arena last season only for the home finale against rival Auburn.
The reserved Grant isn''t getting carried away. In fact, he practically channels Tide football coach Nick Saban when the subject of Alabama''s success comes up.
They embrace similar formulas. Take care of today instead of looking ahead or behind. Play sound defense. He even uses Saban''s buzzword "process" from his own rebuilding job. In fact, Saban won the SEC West in his second season.
"My thing is the goal should be let''s get better every day," Grant said. "Let''s take care of the basketball. Let''s defend the right way. Let''s do those things. If you do those things, then everything else takes care of itself. We call that the process."
Grant frequently emphasizes that Alabama has to play strong defense to keep winning. The Crimson Tide certainly has been, allowing 60 points in regulation only five times during the past 13 games.
Alabama is giving up 58.4 points per game, eighth-best nationally. Tide opponents are shooting just 36.8 percent, which ranks third in the nation and would be an SEC single-season record if it holds up.
League coaches are impressed.
"They''re just a very physical team," said Auburn''s Tony Barbee, whose team lost to the Tide 68-58. "That''s what makes them a very good defensive team. It''s something a lot of teams try to do but Alabama has the personnel to do it.
"It looks like they''ve all bought into how they have to play defensively, and that''s what every coach tries to do. It''s always difficult to do that and it seems like Alabama has done that."
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy cites the Tide''s ability to chase down "50-50 balls" that both teams have a shot at grabbing. Alabama is coming off a 74-64 win over the Rebels.
"The best word that I can use to describe them is scrappy," Kennedy said. "I think that they''re very active with their hands, they swarm to the ball. They''re just very active. As a result I think their defense allows them to create opportunities in the open floor, which as coaches is what we all want."
Kennedy said having a full season to get Tide players to buy into and master Grant''s system has been a big factor in Alabama''s Year 2 success. He said the biggest change has been the addition of freshman Trevor Releford.
"I think what''s allowed them to take that next step has just been the emergence of their freshman at the point guard position," Kennedy said. "He''s playing with great poise. He really sets the tone for them on both ends of the floor and he''s making very good decisions. As a result, they''re winning games, they''re playing with a lot of confidence. I think it all starts with him."