“Let Eblen shoot!”
“Let Eblen shoot!”
At the opposite end of the floor, the subject of the chant took an inbounds pass oblivious to the commotion. Alabama was putting a bow on its 68-44 win over Coastal Carolina in the NIT opening round and Crimson Tide backup point guard Ben Eblen was even more unselfish than usual.
Leading a few fast breaks after steals, he opted for the pass before the points — assists before layups.
In his 310 minutes of floor time this season, the sophomore has taken just 25 shots. Only five came since SEC play opened Jan. 8 and his jumper hoisted in the closing seconds Tuesday was his first attempt since Feb. 12. All but five of his attempts came in Coleman Coliseum where Alabama (22-11) will play host to New Mexico (22-12) in the NIT second round Monday at 8 p.m.
“Sometimes I hear fans yelling ‘Shoot it Eblen,’ or something like that,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter what the fans say. I feel like I’m capable of shooting it, but I feel like my role is something else on the team.”
His job description involved defense, distribution and allowing starter Trevor Releford a little down time. It’s uncommon for Eblen to even show opposing defenses a shot-ready look. His eyes almost always search for the open teammate instead of the rim.
So, even though his rare look at the basket was swatted by Coastal Carolina’s Jon Pack with 15 seconds left, his evening was still a success. He played 17 minutes — most since the non-conference season — and recorded two assists with a steal.
The highlight of Eblen’s season came in a Jan. 29 win over LSU. After Tiger Andre Stringer stripped the ball from him and broke free for what appeared to be an open layup, Eblen chased the play from behind and recorded his only block of the season. That effort, coach Anthony Grant said, was the identity of this team.
It’s not that Eblen is afraid of shooting. He just understands what’s expected of him within the framework of the Alabama offense.
“That doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Maybe down the line, that might be my role. But right now, Trevor Releford plays in front of my and gets a lot of minutes. He’s one of the best players in the SEC, so with him and Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green, I’m not really worried about shooting.”
And his five shots in the last 19 games proves it.
Averaging 27.6 minutes between shots since league play opened stands in stark contrast to Releford who attempted one every 3.9 minutes and scores 10.4 points per game.
Eblen is accustomed to this role that he also played in high school. Playing on the same Florida Air Academy team as SEC players Ty Armstrong (Auburn) and Will Yeguete (Florida), finding the scorers was always a priority. He averaged 10 points and eight assists as a senior when Scout.com rated him the 28th best point guard nationally. As a freshman last season, the lefty took 20 shots in 203 minutes.
As a freshman last season, the lefty took 20 shots in 203 minutes.
“To me, an assist is as good as a basket,” Eblen said.
Originally committed to Anthony Grant’s Virginia Commonwealth program, Eblen became the first to sign when the coach took the Alabama job. Grant describes his role is to “run our team as the point guard and to impact the game in as many ways as he can.”
Green knows Eblen can shoot and was impressed with the improvement he made from his freshman to sophomore seasons.
“He’s just hesitant with his shots and I think he’s just out there thinking too much,” Green said. “Once he goes out there and just has fun, everything will be OK.”
Senior Senario Hillman also said it’s all about the mental approach.
“Me and Ben used to come to the gym and work on our jump shot,” Hillman said. “I feel like he can be a great shooter if he plays with a lot of confidence and is shooting the ball more. He’s a hard-working young guy and he’s a great person to be around.”
Eblen smiles when talking about his teammates giving him a hard time about not shooting the ball more often.
It’s all in fun, he said. His role is pass and defend.
Eblen’s teammates understand that and doesn’t question him on the playing floor.
But the pep band?
Well, they don’t have much say in the matter.
Michael Casagrande covers University of Alabama sports for The Star.