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January 28, 2011

For Alabama basketball, dunks not the key D word

TUSCALOOSA _ It's not just at the University of Alabama, basketball fans everywhere naturally love dunks.

They crave the crisp set-up passes, the alley-oops and the high-flying slams that can turn even Coleman Coliseum into the craziest of collegiate venues.

However, when it comes to this year's Crimson Tide, the key has been on the other end of the floor, where no one in the Southeastern Conference has been better this season.

Yes, we're talking about defense, and when LSU visits on Saturday (7 p.m. FS South), just like with every other game it'll probably determine the outcome -- especially considering that leading scorer Ralston Turner (13.7 points), a freshman shooting guard from Muscle Shoals who has missed the past five games with a foot injury, is expected back for the Tigers.

"We're going to have to do a great job on the defensive end, with all their guys not just him," Coach Anthony Grant said.

And not just with this opponent. While the Crimson Tide is frequently known for outstanding defense in football this group has been equally good and atop the SEC in numerous categories. Overall, Alabama is sixth in the nation in scoring defense (57.3 points), second in opponents' first-goal percentage but first in points allowed per possession (0.83).

"A lot of hard work we put in has finally paid off," explained redshirt sophomore forward/guard Andrew Steele, whose return from knee problems has helped fuel wins in seven of the last eight games. Even though he played in just six of them, Steele's the only player on Alabama who hasn't been in the negative in plus-minus (points the team scores while he's on the court minus allowed) against anyone.

"I would like to think that I'm helping, but I don't think it was me," Steele continued. "Since the second half of the Oklahoma State game we've been a different team. We're playing a lot harder and with a lot more passion. I think we're focused a lot more on the defensive end."

Since that OSU loss in Oklahoma City on Dec. 18, when Alabama wasn't able to overcome its 16-point first half, no opponent has reached its average in points, shooting percentage or 3-point shooting. Only Arkansas and Kentucky managed to score at least 60, with Auburn the lone team to grab more rebounds.

"They're so long and so athletic and very, very aggressive and that always makes an outstanding defense and it makes it so hard to score because they have such length and versatility that if they want the can switch one through five and cause problems," Auburn coach Tony Barbee said. "They do a great job of keeping you in front and not gambling. At the end of the day you get the ball and try and get it close to the rim, which we were able to do quite a lot, they challenge everything at the rim. That's the back line of your defense, the last line of your defense and they do a great job of making everything difficult."

Actually, Grant continues rebounding to be the end of the defense, and obviously the more shots the opposition misses the more opportunities for the Crimson Tide (12-7, 4-1 SEC).

But that's assuming the other team gets the shot off. Alabama's 9.5 steals lead the conference and rank 10th nationally. Individually, five Crimson Tide players are in the conference's top 10: No. 2 Senario Hillman (1.8), No. 3 Tony Mitchell (1.8), No. 8 JaMychel Green (1.3) and No. 10 Trevor Releford and Chris Hines (tied, 1.3).

Consequently, even when Alabama's offensive play may be off, it's virtually been in every game since Grant's arrival last year, with only five opponents able to beat the Tide by double-digits (vs. Kansas State in Mobile, at Arkansas, at Kentucky, at Purdue and at Providence). The defense has become such a point of pride that even reserve guard Ben Eblen doesn't hesitate when asked how he contributes the most
.
"Definitely on the defensive end," the sophomore said.

As for LSU (10-10, 2-3 SEC), the first of seven remaining division games that could determine Alabama's postseason fate, the Tigers have lost their last three games (at Kentucky, Ole Miss and at Tennessee) by a combined 87 points. Their scoring average of 64.4 points ranks 269th in the nation, with the .401 field-goal percentage 304th.

But it's another big game, against a team that beat Arkansas, with another sellout expected at Coleman Coliseum. While the fans have wildly cheered the 74 dunks, with both Mitchell (34) and Green (23) having more than all opponents combined (13), they should probably be just as loud for the defensive plays, which are a lot more important to this team.

"It's been a great environment," Eblen said. "I hope keep coming out and supporting us, it's definitely like having a sixth man, with the crowd the way it was during the Kentucky game. We're undefeated at home so far and we want to keep it that way."


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