The 2015-16 season was a pleasantly surprising one for Alabama fans, as the charismatic and charming Avery Johnson made quite the statement both on and off the court in his debut campaign. Led by the emergence of senior captain Retin Obasohan (17.6 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.6 APG), Johnson guided the Tide to an exciting run midway through the SEC slate, even putting Alabama on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament at one point, before the team came crashing back down to Earth down the stretch. When it was all said and done, Alabama finished 18-15 overall, with an 8-10 record in SEC play and a trip to the NIT. Pretty solid stuff for a first year coach and a team that not only lacked talent and depth, but was also built the opposite way of what Johnson is trying to do in Tuscaloosa.
As the upcoming season slowly begins to roll around, Avery Johnson and company are hard at work trying to make his second season a memorable one. Most media outlets and national pundits are disregarding Alabama and relegating them to the lower middle-of-the-pack of the lowly-regarded SEC. In fact, the SEC media ended up on the higher-end of preseason expectations for the Tide when they predicted them to finish 7th in conference play. The logic is sound: Alabama hasn’t done much of anything in years and lost a large chunk of the team from last season, including Obasohan, guards Arthur Edwards (9.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.4 APG, team-leading 39.4% 3P%) and Justin Coleman (7.8 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 3.3 APG, team-leading 1.65 assist-to-turnover ratio), and big man Michael Kessens (3.7 PPG, 3.5 RPG). However, Johnson has been building a strong foundation at the Capstone, and the Crimson Tide should turn some heads this season.
The question is, how much of a surprise does Avery Johnson have in store?
Performing a Face-lift
When Avery Johnson arrived in Tuscaloosa, he promised to bring an exciting, up-tempo brand of basketball to town. His ideal roster would be one littered with height, athleticism, and polish. The team that Anthony Grant left behind was not built to run the kind of game-plan that Johnson wants to employ, so he had to do his best to build that foundation while working within the constraints of the current team’s make-up.
One way Johnson has addressed this issue is by recruiting his tail off. After reaffirming the commitments of 6’5 guards Dazon Ingram (7.7 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 3.3 APG) and Brandon Austin (1.5 PPG, 0.9 RPG) and 6’9 post Donta Hall (2.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.7 BPG) for the class of 2015, Coach Johnson broke out the all-out blitz on a few transfer prospects. Wing forward Nick King, off-guard Corban Collins, and power forward Bola Olaniyan will all be eligible to play this season, and they will counted on to provide experience and leadership. Johnson also landed one of the top JUCO shooters available in swing-man Ar’Mond Davis and the #33-ranked high school player in the ESPN 100, stretch forward Braxton Key. With Ingram hopefully getting a full healthy season and Avery Johnson Jr. coming in to help man the point, the Tide are suddenly deep enough at each position on the court to run out in transition like Johnson aspires to do:
Point Guard: Dazon Ingram, Avery Johnson Jr.
Off Guard: Corban Collins, Ar’Mond Davis, Brandon Austin
Wing Forward: Riley Norris, Nick King
Stretch Forward: Shannon Hale, Braxton Key
Post: Jimmie Taylor, Donta Hall, Bola Olaniyan
Every single one of the guys listed above can play; depth should no longer be a detriment to this program. Also, many of these guys can play different positions. Ingram is a legitimate triple-threat who can rebound as well as any guard in the SEC. Davis and Norris are both prototypical swing-men who can play guard as well as out on the wing, and both have been known to get hot and knock down shots. Hale and Key can both stretch the floor with great effectiveness due to their ability to play away from the basket. The versatility of this roster will be a great strength of this year’s group.
Depth and versatility aren’t the only two areas that Johnson addressed. For years Alabama has been unable to shoot the ball from different positions with any consistency. With both Obasohan and Edwards graduating, this issue became a glaring weakness. Enter Corban Collins and Ar’Mond Davis. Collins is expected to have a similar impact as the aforementioned Edwards did, combining his plethora of experience with his ability to knock down shots on the perimeter. The former LSU product shot 42.5% from three-point range last season with Morehead State, which placed him in the top ten of the Ohio Valley Conference in that category last season. And all indications from early practice reports are that Davis has been shooting the lights out. Granted, Davis has yet to play a competitive game at this level, but if he can shoot close to 40.0% from the arc, Alabama suddenly has a couple of reliable options they can go to, and that’s not even mentioning Riley Norris (37.5% 3P%) or Shannon Hale (32.8%), who should both continue to progress in that area.
With the amount of athletic slashers that litter this lineup (Ingram, King, Hale, and Key), the ability to stretch the defense with jump-shots will be crucial to Alabama’s success offensively this season.
Another massive flaw that has plagued Alabama in recent years has been the team’s horrendous performance on the boards. Despite having a number of big bodies who helped lead the Tide to 3rd in the SEC in blocks per game, Alabama finished in dead last in the conference in rebounds per game. Hall showed promise as a banger on the boards, but the fact that 6’5 Riley Norris was the team leader in rebounding at 5.3 per game underscores how badly this team needs help in that area.
Enter Bola Olanyani, who despite his smaller frame (6’7, 220), led the Missouri Valley Conference and ranked 66th nationally in offensive rebounding (3.0) and was second in the league and 67th in the country in total rebounds per game (8.8). His scoring (7.8 PPG) could be an issue going up against superior competition, but rebounding usually translates well across leagues. Also, as mentioned earlier, Dazon Ingram is an explosive talent who can rebound with the best of them from his guard spot, and the added athleticism from guys like Nick King and Braxton Key should make Alabama a much improved rebounding team across the board.
Despite all of these new, exciting additions to the roster, there are still a number of areas that may spell doom for Alabama’s hopes of making some real noise in the SEC this season. For one, there is no guarantee that this in-flux roster will gel correctly, especially in the earlier portion of the season. Most of the new additions have experience playing college basketball, but to ask them all to be on the same page in time for contests with the likes of Dayton, Texas, Oregon, and Clemson, who all appear on the schedule before Christmas, might be a bit too much.
On top of that, there is still a great concern over whether or not Alabama’s ability to handle the ball and make good passes will improve much. The Tide finished dead last in the SEC in assists per game and 10th in turnovers committed. The loss of Justin Coleman, the lone player with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio last season, could loom large. Ingram is expected to be the high volume point guard, but he’s still a youngster who forced things quite a bit early on last season. Expect to see Avery Johnson Jr. and Collins spend a lot of time with the ball in their hands as well, but really the whole team needs to learn to take care of the ball and make better passes that will set their teammates up for success.
Lastly, while it seems likely that the team’s field goal percentage should see an increase from last season’s 265th-ranked 42.2%, there is no guarantee that any of the newcomers will help cure the Tide’s ails at the free throw line. Once again, Coleman was the only player on the roster who could confidently knock down his shots from the charity stripe. Hale’s 74.7% from the line is solid, but nobody else from last season even came close to hitting that mark. It remains to be seen how much progress has been made in that area, because missed free throws will absolutely kill teams, especially in SEC play.
There is a lot to be excited about in Avery Johnson’s second season at the helm of Alabama basketball. Whatever ends up happening, the Tide should at least be a fun team to watch this season, which will be a nice reprieve for ‘Bama fans who have been watching ugly, mediocre basketball for years. The amount of raw talent on this roster is better than the Capstone has seen in some time.
However, it won’t be an easy road. Considering how many key players are new to the program, it will likely take some time for everyone to get on the same page. It would be nice for one of the older players to step up and take control early in the season, because there may be a lack of leadership on the court.
The SEC is a league that is desperate for someone other than Kentucky to become a reliable force again. With the amount of poor play plaguing the league, there is a lot of room for growth and advancement. Most analysts are expecting teams like Florida, Vanderbilt, Georgia, Texas A&M, and Arkansas to fill that void this season, but they shouldn’t be sleeping on the team in Tuscaloosa. A return trip to the NIT should be the baseline expectation for this year’s group, and that usually (in recent years, at least) puts a team in the upper-half of the SEC.
With big time prospects like 5-star guards Collin Sexton and John Petty both naming Alabama as finalists and a handful of three-star prospects already lined up for 2017, the future is very bright for ‘Bama hoops.
Just don’t be too surprised if that future comes sooner than expected.