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February 16, 2011TUSCALOOSA _ Although University of Alabama men's basketball coach Anthony Grant is trying to keep his players from not looking ahead, the day is quickly approaching that they may no longer be able to do so.
Go back to the beginning of the season and some of the objectives set by every collegiate team. They're like stepping stones with win the division, win the conference, win the conference tournament and keep advancing in the NCAA Tournament until the national championship is decided.
"That's one of the goals," Grant said about winning the SEC West. "You take care of today, that all will take care of itself.
"My thing is let's get better every day."
Nevertheless, that first step is suddenly close at hand. Should Alabama (16-8, 8-2 SEC) sweep its games this week it could clinch the West with four games remaining.
Only the schedule is not very kind. For the second straight week the Crimson Tide will have a short turnaround, and after playing at LSU on Thursday night will host Arkansas on Saturday. Not only are the Razorbacks the lone division team to notch a win against Alabama this season, but will get an extra day of rest after facing 11-14 Florida A&M.
Through Tuesday night, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi State were all four games back in the loss column. The Rebels, which Alabama will visit on Feb. 26, host Auburn and visit the Bulldogs this week.
"It would mean a lot," junior forward JaMychal Green said about Alabama possibly finishing atop the division for the first time since 2004-05. "Since I've been here this is the best season we've had so far. We're just in a great place as a team.
"Then the next one is to win the conference."
There again the schedule doesn't favor the Crimson Tide. While Alabama and Florida both have just two SEC losses, their potential showdown for the conference regular-season title will be played at the O-Dome on March 5.
But first things first, the struggling Tigers. LSU (10-15, 2-8) has lost eight straight, which dates back more than a month to Jan. 12, and ranks 306th nationally in scoring, 316th in field-goal percentage and 288th in assists per game.
When they met on Jan. 29, Alabama dominated 70-46, but forward Storm Warren didn't play due to a sore Achilles and freshman guard Ralston Turner was in his first game back from a foot injury.
"I think they'll play with a chip on their shoulders," Green said.
Alabama, meanwhile, has won 11 of its last 13 games and still hasn't lost at Coleman Coliseum _ or as Arkansas coach John Pelphrey put it, "Where nobody's had success this season. They're playing great."
It's been an amazing run for a team that went 6-10 in conference play last year and roughly two months ago was just 5-6. When asked about the turnaround the players usually talk about confidence, chemistry and knowing what's expected of them.
"Buying in and seeing that it's working," sophomore forward Tony Mitchell said.
Ask the other coaches in the conference the same thing and they all give the same answer, defense.
The 0.83 points allowed per possession is tied with Texas for the nation's best, the opposing shooting percentage of .368 is third and the 58.4 points allowed is eighth. The 9.5 steals per game is seventh nationally with five players ranking in the top 10 in the league: No. 2 Senario Hillman (1.8) and Mitchell (1.8), No. 5 Trevor Releford (1.5), and No. 9 Chris Hines (1.3) and Green (1.3).
"The statistics when you get this deep into the season don't lie," South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said. "They are a very good defensive team and I think they're a nice mix. What Anthony's done a really good job of with that team is they're obviously very solid man-to-man and they're physical and they make it hard for you, but they've done a job of changing defenses too and keeping people off-balance, creating turnovers.
"It's really hard to do that."
Yet that's where the consensus of end, because there's little agreement about which player has been Alabama's the biggest catalyst.
"I think the biggest difference from watching them earlier in the season, to having played them just last Saturday, is the emergence of Trevor Releford," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "Everybody knew coming into the year that JaMychal Green is a load on the block and has certainly played well in league play. They're athletic at number of different positions and they're always going to play hard and disciplined.
"But I think what has allowed them to take the next step has just been the emergence of the freshman at the point guard position. He's playing with great poise. He really sets the tone on both ends of the floor and he's really making good decisions. As a result they're winning games and playing with a lot of confidence. I think it all starts with him."
Releford, twice named the SEC Freshman of the Week, has averaged 11.5 points on 49.4 percent shooting with 3.8 assists against SEC opponents, the third best average in the league and tops among freshmen.
"The marked improvement of Green," Mississippi State's Rick Stansbury offered. "He's a real presence on the post offensively and extends out and makes shots. Hines is a tough kind. He's kind of a role-type player, doesn't get a lot of shots but as a defender doesn't just roll and rebounds the basketball.
"Probably the guy who has elevated his play is Mitchell, and his ability to go score. Last year he couldn't do that. He's scoring in different ways and is a big, physical athlete."
Mitchell is coming off his fourth straight 20-point game and is averaging 17.4 points in SEC play. Right behind him is Green with 17.2 points and 7.9 rebounds.
"They have very good athletes," Stansbury continued. "Hillman is a great athlete. Quick hands, quick feet and can really get really get up and contest shots. When they get up into you it's really hard to drive that basketball."
But LSU coach Trent Johnson has a different theory.
"What makes them so good is that they're obviously an older, experienced group," he said. "JaMychal Green, Hillman, Mitchell and Releford are very, very good athletes. They have an attitude and they're competitive. When you combine that athleticism with that experience, they're special in that regard."
Regardless, fans of Alabama and Florida might get a sneak peek of how the teams match up because after playing the Tide the Tigers host the No. 15 Gators on Sunday.
"Two NCAA-worthy teams," Johnson said. "We need to find a way to be competitive."