When the University of Alabama announced the hiring of Nick Saban on January 3rd 2007, most everybody around the program knew it was the beginning of a new era. With that being said, it took about 18 months before the football program's dynasty really got started, when the Crimson Tide rolled into Atlanta and crushed the 9th-ranked Clemson Tigers 34-10 to begin the 2008 season.
Alabama announced the hiring of Avery Johnson on April 7th, 2015, and after a couple of transitional seasons of rebuilding the program, the preseason 25th-ranked Crimson Tide hoops squad looks to truly begin the new era of Alabama basketball.
Now, it's obviously foolish to believe that the basketball program will come close to recreating what their football counterparts have been able to achieve under Saban, but it's certainly not hard to envision Avery Johnson keeping the Tide near the top of the SEC for years to come. An SEC that, by the way, is becoming one of the top conferences in the country; something that hasn't been said about the conference since, well, Alabama was last seen near the top of the league consistently in the early 2000's.
So what exactly can be expected of the Tide this season? Can they actually compete for the SEC Title? Can they make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012?
A New Era
Avery Johnson knew from the moment he arrived in Tuscaloosa that he didn't have the foundation he needed to run his system. With a thin roster and a group of under-developed players left behind by his predecessor, Anthony Grant, Johnson knew he would need to do his best to begin laying the framework of the program he was trying to build while simultaneously trying to get the best out of a group of guys taught and built to play basketball at a grueling, crawling pace. The results were mixed his first two seasons at the Capstone. While the team was clearly improving, the Tide still looked much like a Grant-coached team in style. A few key areas of the team made great strides however, as the Tide went from being one of the worst teams in the conference in rebounding to one of the best last spring. They also finally started a) winning games away from home and b) winning big games against good opponents by making the clutch plays late.
Grant's teams always reminded me of Will Muschamp's football teams at Florida: nasty defenses that always kept things close (with the exception of a few serious duds) but couldn't ever do enough on offense to come away victorious. If Grant = Muschamp, then Years 1 & 2 of the Avery Johnson era was equal to Jim McElwain's first two as the head man of Florida football. Sure, the team was much better in a number of ways, but the results were mostly the same: great defense, poor scoring ability, yet able to take advantage of a weaker slate of opponents with the occasional big victory.
This is where the analogy should diverge though, as Avery Johnson's third Alabama basketball team should look nothing like Grant's teams or whatever Florida's been doing in football lately. This team is lethal and loaded.
Gotta Have Guards
Alabama's been struggling to get dynamic guard play for a long time. It seems like every year there has been at least one good-to-great guard on the squad, but this year's Tide should have quite a few. The story, of course, has to start with 5-star, do-it-all, future NBA lottery pick, Collin Sexton. It's really difficult to overstate Sexton's abilities. He can shoot, drive, dribble, pass, defend, and run the floor as well as anyone in college basketball. He is a legitimate contender for SEC Player of the Year and will undoubtedly be Alabama's first-ever one-and-done player. His addition alone would make Alabama a contender in the conference.
The great thing is that he's not alone. Fellow 5-star guard and Mr. Basketball in the state of Alabama, John Petty, also headlined Alabama's top-five recruiting class. Petty is another future NBA player, and his shooting should bring welcome relief for a program that's been starved of quality, consistent shooters. He's no slouch in other areas of the game as well, and he will make a massive difference in this 'Bama backcourt.
But it would be remiss to ignore Alabama's returning guard-play, which would have likely been among the top-half of the SEC even without the two freshmen. Redshirt sophomore Dazon Ingram is a proven commodity that should greatly benefit from being able to play off-ball more this season. He is a true triple threat who can drive, pass, and rebound as well as any guard in the league. Ingram's biggest weakness has been his ball-handling, but that's been more of a matter of him being a young player playing out of position and having to be the primary ball-handler more often than he should. With Sexton and junior Avery Johnson Jr. manning the point more often than not, Ingram should be free to make some serious noise up and down the court.
Swingman Ar’Mond Davis, freshman Herb Jones, and fan-favorite Lawson Schaffer round out the rotation in the backcourt. Davis was an incredibly streaky shooter last season, but when he is on, watch out. If he can become a consistent scorer off of the bench, Alabama's going to be lighting up the scoreboard. Jones is a lanky 6'7 guard with a lot of potential, but he's more of a long-term addition to the roster.
Wings and Forwards
Alabama's backcourt will be one of the most improved units in the conference, but the forwards should be improved as well. Sophomore Braxton Key leads the charge in this unit, as the young 6'8 stretch forward will try to build on his SEC All-Freshmen first season in college basketball. Key is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades himself, able to dribble, drive, and bang in the post equally well. He needs more polish, as he's been a bit of a raw player, particularly with his jump shot, but he's got the potential to play at the next level. He flirted with making that jump this past spring, but smartly realized how much better he could be with another year or two at the collegiate level. His flexibility and athleticism could make him a match-up nightmare this season.
Speaking of flexibility, savvy veteran Riley Norris is back for his senior season at the Capstone, and his experience and leadership will go a long way towards Alabama reaching their lofty goals this season. While Norris is listed here under 'wings and forwards' the 6'7 product from Albertville could just as easily be listed as a guard, as he is one of Alabama's best shooters and has great court vision. But he can also rebound with the best of them, as well as defend just about anywhere on the court. The ability to show a lot of different looks with guys like Norris, Key, and Ingram will be a huge advantage for the Tide this season.
Alabama completed a full 180-degree turnaround in rebounding last season, and a lot of that had to do with returning starter Donta Hall. The 6'9 center is longer than he is even given credit for, and his ability to swat shots and play around the rim provide the Tide with a massive boost in the paint. Alabama is going to want to push the pace and run the floor this season, and Hall's athleticism and ability to finish will be a huge key to that strategy. After years of Grant's "experiments" and "long-term projects" failing in the low block, Alabama finally has itself a strong, capable post player again.
But Hall will not be alone in that category, as 6'11 sophomore Daniel Giddens, a transfer from Ohio State, joins the fold this season. Giddens is a physical presence in the paint, and should be a great rim protector this year. If Giddens can spell Hall and also allow Alabama to occasionally go big with two posts, the Tide could take another step forward to becoming a dominant rebounding team. That's a bit of an 'if' right now though, as Giddens has had some issues with foul trouble in the little bit of live action he's gotten in Crimson and White thus far. Hopefully that's something Avery can coach out of him.
Joining the two towers down-low are freshmen Alex Reese and Galin Smith, both 6'9 posts with large frames. Neither should be counted on to provide a significant amount of minutes this season, as Alabama's more likely to go small than big in the case that Giddens and/or Hall do get into foul trouble, but they are both capable players with decently high ceilings, and they should provide quality depth this year.
This is the fifth time I've written a season preview for Alabama basketball. The previous four editions of this piece ranged anywhere from "cautiously optimistic" to "so how about that football team?" That is not the case this year. The hype-train has left the station, the passengers are all buckled up, and honestly, anything short of an NCAA Tournament appearance would be a major disappointment this season.
There are as many as four legitimate NBA prospects on this team, quality depth, significant experience, and a full roster that has been built to run the kind of up-tempo, athletic, well-spaced attack that Avery Johnson has wanted to run since he arrived in Tuscaloosa. Sexton and Petty are gamers, Key and Ingram are multi-faceted players with a full year of experience under their belts now, Norris is a savvy vet that does many things well, Avery Jr. is the quintessential second point guard, and Hall and Giddens should bring back some honor to what used to be a legacy at Alabama: the dominant big man.
Nobody is asking the basketball program to mirror the success of the football team. But there is more anticipation for Tide hoops than there has been in a very long time. Now it's time to capitalize on it and ascend back to the top of the SEC, where Alabama basketball should be.