TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Anthony Grant and Alabama are looking to graduate from NIT contender to NCAA tournament regular.
Grant's Crimson Tide has averaged 23 wins over the past three seasons, sandwiching trips to the NIT quarterfinals and championship game around a one-and-out NCAA visit.
All-Southeastern Conference guard Trevor Releford is the leader of a team with loftier ambitions despite having two starters transfer and a key reserve withdraw from school after last season.
"We're really motivated as a team," Releford said. "We don't want to play in the NIT this year. That's what we talk about every day. We want to make that next stride as a program and play in the NCAA tournament this postseason. I think we're using last year as motivation to get better every day and get prepared for this year."
Alabama is coming off a 23-13 season when it finished in a three-way tie for second in the SEC but had its NCAA resume damaged by early nonconference losses to teams like Mercer, Dayton and Tulane. The Tide advanced to the NIT quarterfinals before losing 58-57 to Maryland.
The Tide returns four of the top five scorers for Grant's fifth season, even with the defections of No. 2 scorer Trevor Lacey (North Carolina State), center Moussa Gueye (Valparaiso) and reserve forward Devonta Pollard.
Pollard, a five-star recruit who was Alabama's only signee in 2012, withdrew from school after he, his mother and others were arrested in connection to a child's kidnapping.
Grant is hoping the Tide is ready for the next step: championships and NCAA berths.
"I don't think there's one thing you can put your finger on as a program and say we've arrived," he said. "You never arrive. I don't think any coach that's won championships no matter what will tell you the team's arrived. We're trying to get our program to where we can compete for championships."
Here are five things to watch in Alabama's season:
RANDOLPH'S HEALTH: Guard Levi Randolph's status remains uncertain approaching the season opener Nov. 8 against Oklahoma in the Tip-Off Classic in Dallas. Grant said Thursday that he hasn't been able to return since injuring a knee in practice on Oct. 12 and that several players could fill his role if needed. "We've got a lot of guys with a lot of versatility," he said. "I think that's one thing with our team is we have multiple guys that can multiple positions. We've had different guys."
FIT RELEFORD: Releford has dropped some 10 pounds in the offseason. The only senior on a team with 10 scholarship players, he wanted to improve his stamina after averaging 14.9 points per game. He is already the Tide's career leader in steals. "With the numbers the way they are, coach talked to me and told me I have to be in the best shape possible going into the season and be able to play as many minutes as he asks me to," Releford said. "In the offseason, that was the biggest thing I worked on."
REPLACING LACEY: It's unclear who will replace Lacey as the point guard in the backcourt with Releford and Rodney Cooper. The most experienced candidate is Retin Obasohan, who emerged as a key player off the bench late last season.
POST OFFENSE: Grant said he's hoping to get more consistent effort and play from starting forward Nick Jacobs, who dropped 20-25 pounds in the offseason. He had some scoring spurts but wasn't a consistent scorer. Carl Engstrom, a 7-foot-1 center, missed most of last season with a knee injury that thrust Gueye into the starting lineup. He's more of an offensive threat.
NEWCOMERS: Grant expects all three of his signees — junior college guard Algie Key and forwards Jimmie Taylor and Shannon Hale — to play significant roles. Taylor and Hale were rated among the nation's top 100 recruits.