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Alabama Basketball 2015-16 Season Preview: Rebuilding a Program

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Avery Johnson has created serious momentum in Tuscaloosa, but what can be expected of this season?

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Alabama Crimson Tide basketball program is an interesting case-study in collegiate athletics. On one hand, the program has been very successful historically: the Tide boast seven SEC Championships, six SEC Tournament Championships, twenty NCAA Tournament appearances, eight Sweet Sixteen appearances, and a magical Elite Eight run just over a decade ago. During the dark days of the football program in the early 2000's, the basketball team really gave Alabama fans something to take pride in. Wimp Sanderson's teams in the 80's and 90's were bursting with talent, athleticism, and excitement. The Capstone's hoops squad is traditionally a top five program in the SEC.

On the other hand, the basketball program has always played second-fiddle to the gargantuan football program, arguably the finest in all of college football. Because of this reason, Alabama fans have been known to quickly jump ship whenever things become stale and hopeless. It comes as no surprise that the last decade or so of Alabama basketball has totally wiped clean many people's views of what is historically a very good program. When Missouri and Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012, many of their fans were surprised to find out that Alabama was traditionally considered part of the upper-echelon in the conference.

With all of that said, the many successes of the 80's, 90's, and early 2000's gave way to a ten year or so collapse of a program. First, Mark Gottfried's tenure ended with a fizzle as the foundation that he built his program on slowly decayed underneath him and some of his, well, transgressions. Athletics Director Mal Moore looked to a promising up-and-comer from VCU, Anthony Grant, to turn things around. After six years of sluggish offensive outputs, uninspired performances, ugly upsets, and mediocre basketball, Grant was let go this past spring. Alabama's program had fallen to a place it hadn't been to in a long time: downright apathy.

Because of all of this, current Athletics Director Bill Battle, a guy who was originally brought in to be a bit of a stop-gap figurehead at the position, suddenly found himself having to make arguably the biggest hire in Alabama's fine basketball program's history. Let's just say this: he has hit it out of the park so far.

Avery Johnson has done more for Alabama in creating buzz around the program in six months than either Gottfried or Grant had done in the previous ten years. The Crimson Tide's 2016 recruiting class is currently fifth in the country, and the infectiously delightful Johnson has grabbed the attention of fans who haven't watched a basketball game in years. The former NBA champion knows how to sell a program, and he has now beaten programs like Kansas multiple times for recruits. Kids want to play for this guy, and it is easy to see why. Coach Johnson has had incredible amounts of success as a player, both in college and in the NBA, as a coach with the Dallas Mavericks, and as an analyst on television. There is some real energy around this program now, and it's good to see Alabama fans genuinely excited about the hoops program again.

With all of that being said, the honeymoon is over now. Now it's time for Coach Johnson to roll up his sleeves and get to work. Johnson has promised to bring an exciting, fast-paced offense to complement an attacking and assertive defense. With his experience utilizing a 24-second shot clock, Crimson Tide fans shouldn't have to worry about empty possessions that end with low-percentage heaves at the buzzer. Johnson is going to get this program back on the right track, but how quickly can he do that?

The Roster

This year's team has an interesting build for a new coach to try and craft an identity around. There is good depth on this roster, but nearly all of Alabama's playmakers from last season have moved on. Guard Levi Randolph, arguably one of the most underrated players in the program's history, will be the biggest loss to overcome. Randolph led the team in scoring (15.4 PPG), rebounding (5.1 RPG), assists (2.5 APG), and steals (1.5 SPG). He was easily the most efficient scorer on the team as well, as his offensive rating (ORtg) of 122.2 was 54th in the country. Rodney Cooper (11.1 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.6 APG) was clearly the Tide's second best player, and he exhausted his eligibility as well. Ricky Tarrant (13.1 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.4 SPG) is taking his skills to Memphis, though Alabama did have to play half of the conference slate without him last season anyway.

The leading returning scorer for Alabama this season is stretch forward Shannon Hale (8.2 PPG), and he's coming back from a season-ending injury from last season. Clearly, Alabama is going to need some new players to really step up. Hale is going to be a major key this season. He's got a skill-set that not many can effectively guard, as his ability to play outside of the paint at 6'8 is a tough match-up. Hale's got the most potential on the team, but he's never really been able to put it together on a consistent basis. Johnson has to do a better job of developing Hale than Grant ever did if Alabama wants to be competitive this season, because Hale has the raw talent to be a real playmaker.

At the point, sophomore Justin Coleman is another guy with a high ceiling. His size (generously listed as 5'10, 160) was his biggest deterrent last season, but there is probably not a better person more perfectly suited to help Coleman overcome that barrier than the highly-successful, yet diminutive, Avery Johnson. The former championship-winning point guard is also the NCAA's single season record holder for assists per game (13.3 APG with Southern in 1988). Along with senior and lone four year player Retin Obasohan, the Tide will have two quick guards with an explosive ability to drive to the basket. Expect Johnson to utilize their quickness off of screens and isolation to beat defenders and either open up the lane or force a switch in the defensive rotation. Obasohan will likely start off-guard, but there have been rumblings that Johnson wants to use him more on the wing. Freshmen Dazon Ingram and Brandon Austin are both physical guards with good size, as both are listed at 6'5, so expect them to get plenty of early playing time as the primary back-ups in the backcourt.

In the frontcourt, Johnson has a ton of experience to work with in center Jimmie Taylor and power forward Michael Kessens. Both guys have great size, but they both need serious work in polishing their skills. Taylor has been a defensive force inside, but his rebounding has been disappointingly inefficient for a 6'10 post player, and his offensive game has been, well, ugly. Early reports indicate that Taylor has improved as much as anyone on the roster, which would be a huge development if true. Alabama hasn't had an effective offensive player in the post since JaMychal Green left for the pros over three years ago. Kessens is really close to becoming a solid player on both ends of the floor, but his lack of quickness and overall fluidity have cost him dearly. He simply hasn't been able to hang with athletic forwards on the defensive side, often getting into early foul trouble, and his offensive abilities need guidance. Kessens could be a strong player around the basket if he would commit to playing inside-out less and develop a quicker first step. Freshman Donta Hall, a 6'8 post player, rounds out the four-player rotation inside. True wing player Riley Norris looks to extend his role as the "glue guy" on the court. Norris makes a lot of the hustle plays and really brought some much needed energy to the team last season. The guy has a lot of potential as a shooter, but his numbers last season (37.9% FG%, 33.8% 3P%, 60.5% FT%) left a bit to be desired. Graduate transfer Arthur Edwards will add much needed depth and experience on the wing as well.

Avery Johnson has a roster that can compete and win some games this season, but there are a lot of guys that need to step up. This team will undoubtedly be much more fun to watch, but the lack of a go-to guy or multiple scorers could make this a rough first season for Johnson.

The Schedule

Date Opponent / Event Location Time
11/06/15 vs. Trevecca Nazarene # Tuscaloosa, Ala. 7:00 p.m. CT
11/13/15 vs. Kennesaw State Tuscaloosa, Ala. 7:30 p.m. CT
11/17/15 at Dayton Dayton, Ohio 12:00 p.m. CT
11/20/15 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette Tuscaloosa, Ala. 7:00 p.m. CT
2015 AdvoCare Invitational, Orlando, Fla.
11/26/15 vs. Xavier Orlando, Fla. 11:00 a.m. CT
11/27/15 Wichita State -or- Southern California Orlando, Fla. TBA
11/29/15 TBD Orlando, Fla. TBA
12/04/15 at Southern Miss Hattiesburg, Miss. 7:00 p.m. CT
12/13/15 at Clemson Greenville, S.C. 5:00 p.m. CT
12/16/15 vs. Winthrop Tuscaloosa, Ala. 8:00 p.m. CT
12/21/15 vs. Oregon Birmingham, Ala. 8:00 p.m. CT
12/29/15 vs. Jacksonville State Tuscaloosa, Ala. 7:00 p.m. CT
01/02/16 vs. Norfolk State Tuscaloosa, Ala. 1:00 p.m. CT
01/07/16 at Ole Miss Oxford, Miss. 8:00 p.m. CT
01/09/16 vs. Kentucky Tuscaloosa, Ala. 5:00 p.m. CT
01/13/16 vs. South Carolina Tuscaloosa, Ala. 8:00 p.m. CT
01/16/16 at Vanderbilt Nashville, Tenn. 5:00 p.m. CT
01/19/16 at Auburn Auburn, Ala. 8:00 p.m. CT
01/23/16 vs. LSU Tuscaloosa, Ala. 1:00 p.m. CT
01/26/16 vs. Tennessee Tuscaloosa, Ala. 8:00 p.m. CT
01/30/16 at South Carolina Columbia, S.C. 5:00 p.m. CT
02/02/16 at Mississippi State Starkville, Miss. 8:00 p.m. CT
02/06/16 vs. Missouri Tuscaloosa, Ala. 2:00 p.m. CT
02/10/16 vs. Texas A&M Tuscaloosa, Ala. 6:00 p.m. CT
02/13/16 at Florida Gainesville, Fla. 4:30 p.m. CT
02/17/16 at LSU Baton Rouge, La. 8:00 p.m. CT
02/20/16 vs. Mississippi State Tuscaloosa, Ala. 1:30 p.m. CT
02/23/16 at Kentucky Lexington, Ky. 6:00 p.m. CT
02/27/16 vs. Auburn Tuscaloosa, Ala. 4:00 p.m. CT
03/02/16 vs. Arkansas Tuscaloosa, Ala. 8:00 p.m. CT
03/05/16 at Georgia Athens, Ga. 3:00 p.m. CT

The first year of the Avery Johnson era is going to be a challenging one, that's for sure. The SEC is quickly becoming a more than respectable basketball conference, and Alabama is playing arguably the toughest conference schedule in the SEC. Home-and-homes with Kentucky, LSU, and Mississippi State (who will be drastically better this season) are daunting, as well as road trips to places like Nashville, Gainesville, and Athens.

In non-conference play, Alabama will learn quickly just how ready this young team is to take on quality competition. At Dayton the second game of the season will be tough, as Archie Miller's Flyers are coming off back-to-back impressive NCAA Tournament performances. The Advocare Invitational over Thanksgiving is full of very good teams. The Tide will tip-off against a Xavier team that has bested them the last two seasons, and will play either USC or Gregg Marshall's Wichita State Shockers the following round. The aforementioned Flyers, Notre Dame, Iowa, and Monmouth make up the other side of the bracket. Trips to Southern Miss and Clemson precede a fun match-up in Birmingham with the Oregon Ducks right before Christmas.

Buckling Up

Alabama is one of many teams in the SEC that is trending upwards, and fast. However, there needs to be tempered expectations for this upcoming season. The Tide face a tough schedule, especially for a young team in transition. Avery Johnson has echoed Nick Saban in his repeated remarks about trusting the process of rebuilding this once-proud program. With an historically good recruiting class on the way, and a large amount of returning experience next season, the future is awfully bright in Tuscaloosa. This season will be about establishing the foundation from which Johnson looks to resurrect a program from the ashes. Making the NIT would be a serious accomplishment for this squad, no matter how badly Alabama fans yearn for a return to the big dance in March.

However, this program is on the right path. Avery Johnson has yet to prove his worth as a collegiate head coach, but he has passed every off-the-court aspect of that role with a sparkling 'A+' grade. There is more excitement than there has been in many years around the basketball program, and the Tide faithful can't help but reminisce about the days of winning basketball in Coleman Coliseum.  This is a pivotal season in the program's history, so Alabama fans should heed the advice of Coach Johnson and strap on those seat-belts.