Seven wins in eight games has the Crimson Tide three games up in the Western Division standings. Before taking command of the weakened conference having an off-year, Alabama (15-7, 7-1 SEC) lost six of nine in late November and December.
What’s the difference now heading into an 8 p.m. visit to Vanderbilt on Thursday?
Defense is the easy answer. The statistics say it best.
The seven teams to beat the Tide scored an average of 67.7 points — well above the 57.1 overall allowance that ranks third in the nation.
Shooting percentages also jumped considerably for those who beat coach Anthony Grant’s team. Instead of the 36.2 percent shot by Tide opponents overall, the winners were 43.4 percent. From behind the arc, winners shot 41.7 percent — up from the overall 29.3 percent.
Of the five opponents who shot better than 40 percent, Alabama lost all but once.
“I don’t think anybody can look at our team and say we’ve won because of the offense,” Grant told reporters in Knoxville after Saturday’s 65-60 overtime win over Tennessee. “We’ve been a grind it out team that’s won because of what we did on the defensive end.”
Offensively, the trends are harder to identify and some defied logic.
Free-throw shooting was also notably better in losing performances. The Tide averaged a 79.3 percent success rate in losses compared to the 72.4 season average. Only in the first loss of the year to Seton Hall did it dip below the season average when it made 6 of 9 or 66.7 percent.
Only in the first loss of the year did it dip below the season average when it made 6 of 9 or 66.7 percent.
The Tide is 3-1 when getting out-rebounded. In the seven losses, it held a rebounding edge of 4.1 per game which was down slightly from the 5.0 advantage it held in the 22 games total.
Three-point shooting numbers stick closer to expected.
Throw out the 10-for-14 performance against Seton Hall and Alabama made just 16.9 percent of its 3-pointers
(12-for-71) in losing efforts while it makes 30.9 percent overall.
The change in fortune extends beyond the numbers, Grant said.
“We’re learning how to win,” he said. “That’s probably the difference from last year. We had an inability to move on when adversity set in. We lived in it and didn’t handle it well. I think that’s maturity and that’s growth. I think we’re making that progress from the beginning of this season to that point where we are now.”
After watching his Mississippi State Bulldogs lose to the Tide for the second time in a month on Feb. 2, coach Rick Stansbury said he sees a different fire in Alabama’s eyes.
“They are playing really well as a team and play awfully hard,” he said.
Michael Casagrande covers University of Alabama sports for The Star.