TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The University of Alabama will wrap up the regular season at Ole Miss on Saturday at 3 p.m. CT. The Crimson Tide have been hot of late, closing out the final five weeks by winning four straight and seven of the last nine.
Over that time, UA has transformed its identity, gaining confidence and maturity down the home stretch. If Alabama can pull out a win at Ole Miss, it would improve upon last year's 20-win regular season, bettering the squad that narrowly missed a tournament berth and won the NIT.
If the Tide can continue to get to the rim and draw fouls like they did against Auburn, they can compete against anyone. Considering Alabama is rarely going to shoot near 50 percent, getting to the line for easy buckets is vital. Lately, UA hasn't settled for difficult shots, taking just 11 3-pointers in each of the last two games and getting to the free throw line a season-high 32 times against the Tigers. Alabama also out-rebounded Auburn and hauled in 39 boards.
Ole Miss has one of the better rebound margins in the league and is second in the SEC in blocked shots. In short, Ole Miss will challenge Alabama in the paint. If the UA big men can stand up to the pressure, the Tide should have no trouble ending the regular season on a high note.
"They're probably one of the bigger teams in our league, probably one of the more physical teams," Grant said of the challenge Ole Miss presents on the front line. "They're the best rebounding team in the league and have several guys that can score on the perimeter, as well as the interior."
With that said, the return of JaMychal Green couldn't have come at a better time. With several of the veterans out due to suspensions in recent weeks, the Alabama bench has gained confidence. Now that they have picked up their play, Green doesn't have to shoulder the load as he had before. With Green on the court, he provides a balance to the team, lending both veteran leadership and an inside presence. Against Auburn, Green showed some rust, shooting 4 of 11 but he made up for it by grabbing 10 boards and hitting 7 of 10 free-throw attempts.
Green's play against Ole Miss will be key, combating Rebel forwards Murphy Buckner and Reginald Holloway, both of whom rank in the top 10 of the SEC in rebounds. Look for Nick Jacobs and Moussa Gueye to also lend a hand under the rim. Carl Engstrom, who suffered a hyperextended knee before Wednesday's game, could still be limited.
Continue to improve
Grant said that despite the Tide's recent string of success, they've got "nothing figured out right now" and it's a "work in progress." If Alabama can continue its ascension, the rest of the SEC should be warned. UA is steadily improving week by week, starting with the play of the freshmen who have taken on greater responsibility with the roster turnover. Freshman guard Levi Randolph was part of the top-10 class Grant signed in 2011 and has slowly worked its way into understanding their roles on the team.
"Right now, I think we're really close," Randolph said of the team chemistry. "We're playing really good together. Everyone is going out there, playing hard. Different people are stepping up at different times."
Said Grant: "Every time you step on the practice floor, every time you step in a game, it's a work in progress. You're trying to get to that point, but you haven't arrived."