One on One with Chris Dortch: Senario Hillman
The Internet is littered with videos of Alabama guard Senario Hillman’s dunks. Google “Senario Hillman dunks like a man,” or “Hillman posterizes an Auburn defender,” or “Hillman makes ESPN POD,” and gaze in wonder at gravity-defying feats a man who stands just 6-foot-1 just shouldn’t be able to do.
Hillman, who first dunked as a 5-8 seventh grader, has been identified with his high-wire act for a long time. His exploits have been viewed a million times on YouTube, but all the notoriety may actually have done Hillman a disservice, for it may have obscured what he really does best.
Steals aren’t necessarily the indicator of being an elite defender, but in Hillman’s case, they are. And later this season, he’ll become Alabama’s all-time leader. (In fairness to that Crimson Tide defensive wizard of bygone years, T.R. Dunn—who’s still second on the Denver Nuggets’ all-time steals list with 1,070 in 10 seasons—the NCAA didn’t begin keeping steals as an official statistic until the 1985-86 season.) Hillman, who has nabbed 160 career steals, has a chance to pass such defensive stalwarts as Mike Davis (165), Robert Horry (168) and leader Terry Coner (174) and put his name in the program’s record book for a long time to come.
Fans don’t upload videos of great defensive stops on YouTube. ESPN highlights always feature dunks and three-pointers. As opposed to his rim-rattling throw downs, Hillman’s D has been overlooked by all but his teammates, coaches and the opponents whose miserable shooting nights were directly affected by Hillman.
Not that anyone was trying to keep Hillman’s lockdown skills a secret. As far back as Hillman’s freshman season, then-Alabama coach Mark Gottfried proclaimed, “He is one of the best on-ball defenders we have.”
When Anthony Grant took over the program last season and got better acquainted with Hillman’s physical gifts, he knew he had a potential ball hawk on his hands.
“He’s a competitor, and he’s got great toughness,” Grant said. “Plus he’s got the tools you need in terms of quickness, speed, great hands, great feet. He has all the ingredients to be a guy that can be very, very hard to go against when he’s at his best.”
“He’s an exceptional athlete,” said Alabama assistant coach Dan Hipsher, “and he’s exceptional as an on-ball defender, to just take a guy out. Where he lacks sometimes is off the ball; he can lose his concentration. But on the ball … locked into a guy, he’s a tremendous athlete with extremely quick hands who can really wreak havoc.”
Ask Grant to single out some of Hillman’s recent defensive handiwork and he doesn’t hesitate. “Against Kentucky he took two huge charges for [including one against Brandon Knight],” Grant said. “And at Auburn [where Bama won last week for the first time since 2006], he made a steal in the last minute and a half that was huge. Plays like those make a difference.”
Hillman will be the first to admit he loves to score. Before a recent interview he spent a considerable amount of his own time working on shooting mechanics. He works tirelessly on his ball handling, too. But he’s embraced the role of ace defender.
“The last two years, my main thing has really been about defense,” said Hillman, who’s second in the Southeastern Conference with his average of 1.8 steals per game. “Last year I really bought into it. I still like being an offensive player and getting dunks and stuff like that, but I love trying to stop the best player on the other team. I take pride in trying to make that happen—for the team and for myself.”
Hillman isn’t the only player who has embraced Grant’s defensive mentality. After Alabama lost six of its first 11 games, Grant abandoned the pressing style he learned from former boss Billy Donovan and focused on applying pressure in the half court. The results have been dramatic. The Tide, which leads the SEC and is second in the nation in defensive field-goal percentage (.360), has won seven of its last eight games, including a 4-1 start in SEC play that includes two invaluable road victories.
“For us to win games, we’ve got to defend,” Grant said. “Defense has become our identity.”
Hillman embodies that identity. He’s also embraced his role as sixth man despite starting for most of his career, proof that he’s come a long way since being suspended for a game by Grant late last season for what was described as “a basketball issue.”
“You can see his maturity,” Grant said. “He’s a guy that has accepted his role, and he’s a very competitive guy. He’d certainly love to be out there and play 40 minutes. But he’s willingly accepted the role he has to play on our team and tries to do the best he can in that role.”
Hillman’s Alabama career has been nothing if not a continual adjustment. He was recruited by and played for Gottfried for a season and a half, then played for interim coach Philip Pearson for most of the 2008-09 SEC schedule. After the season was over, he was forced to try and adjust to his third coach in as many months when Grant was hired away from VCU.
As evidenced by that suspension, the adjustment wasn’t always easy for Hillman, but unlike some of his former teammates, he was determined to stick it out at Alabama.
“I just love playing basketball,” Hillman said. “I haven’t let a coaching change stop me from doing what I love to do. Whoever coaches me, I just try to listen to him and be respectful of him, do what he wants me to do.”
Regardless of whether he’s started or come off the bench, Hillman has impacted Alabama’s recent resurgence. If anything, getting to watch the game unfold before he takes the floor has made Hillman even more effective.
“Starting is probably over-valued by a lot of people,” Hipsher said. “In coaches’ minds, it’s how to you produce once you’re in there. Give us productive minutes. Senario produces. Within this system and what Anthony does in terms of pressure, he’s had a chance to shine. Coach wants guys who can get after the ball, and Senario can really do that.”
Two-thirds of the SEC season still awaits, but Hillman likes the Tide’s chances of staying on top of the Western Division. Evidence of where his focus is these days comes when he lists Alabama’s key to the building on its 4-1 start.
“We just have to consistently try and stop the three-point shot [Alabama is second in the SEC in three-point defense],” Hillman said. “Coach Grant always talks about three-pointers being a game changer, so every day in practice, we work hard against each other. It’s paid off.”
Spoken like a man who has bought into the program.
“This is my last year,” Hillman said. “The last couple of years didn’t really go the way I would have wanted them to. I need to go out with a good season, so whatever I have to do, I’m going to do.”