The 2017-18 Alabama basketball season was easily the most eventful and fulfilling (though frustrating at times) in over a decade.
The youthful Crimson Tide took on one of the nation’s toughest schedules, won two out of three games against one of the best Auburn teams in history, advanced to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament for the second year in a row, and captured its first NCAA Tournament victory since 2006 in a thrilling shootout over a strong Virginia Tech squad. Current Cleveland Cavalier Collin Sexton dazzled nearly every time he hit the court, as ‘Bama fans were treated to some of the most electrifying wins in Coleman Coliseum in years. It was a long time in the making, but Tide Hoops finally made a long-awaited return to relevance in 2018.
So, what does Avery Johnson have in store for an encore?
The obvious place to start with is replacing Sexton. Well, maybe not replacing him, because you don’t just replace a Collin Sexton, but Avery has to figure out a way to move on from Sexton and keep things rolling in 2019. It certainly helps that the Tide return nearly everybody from last season, and will finally have an experienced roster for the first time since the early Anthony Grant years. After fielding the fourth-youngest team in college basketball last season, the Tide will find veteran leadership at nearly every spot on the court this year. Experienced teams are typically more consistent and less likely to get upset at home or come out flat on the road, which were issues that plagued Alabama over the course of the regular season last year.
The SEC looks to be a grind again this season, so having an experienced roster should do wonders for Avery Johnson. With so many quality teams in the conference, and even more on the Tide’s non-conference slate, consistency will be a key to Alabama’s success this year. The up-and-down play of a year ago cost the Tide in the NCAA Tournament, as they got matched up with the dominant, eventual national champion Villanova Wildcats in the 2nd Round despite playing at the level of a Sweet Sixteen club in March.
Can Avery Johnson lead Alabama back to the NCAA Tournament again? The Tide haven’t made consecutive trips to the Big Dance since making it five straight times from 2002-2006 in the peak of the Mark Gottfried Era. The schedule will be an asset to the Tide come Selection Sunday, but that’s only if ‘Bama can find a way to navigate it. Can Avery continue to build on his foundation in Tuscaloosa?
Gotta Have Guards
Again, there’s not much more that can be said about Collin Sexton’s departure: it’s going to be really difficult to make up for his production. His ability to create will be sorely missed, but honestly, his ball-handling may be the most difficult to replace. Redshirt junior Dazon Ingram will likely begin the season as the main point guard and ball-handler, which is a role he has struggled with in the past. Turnovers have been Ingram’s biggest weakness in his time at the Capstone.
However, the only true point guards on the team are senior Avery Johnson Jr., who’s really the consummate back-up point guard, and 17-year old true freshman Kira Lewis Jr. The 6’3 product out of Hazel Green, AL is clearly the future for the Tide at the position, but again, he’s incredibly young. I would expect Lewis to be the guy by the end of the season, but it will take some time before he can be counted on to play major minutes, considering he’s the youngest player in college basketball (he turns 18 on April 6th). In fact, he only reclassified to the 2018 class in August when it became apparent that fellow 4-star point guard, Jared Butler, was not going to be cleared to play by team doctors due to an apparent heart condition. However, Lewis has a really high ceiling. He’s no Sexton, but it’s not difficult to foresee Lewis getting drafted into the NBA himself one day.
Overall, Coach Johnson will likely utilize a committee approach at the point. Considering Ingram and AJ’s issues with ball-handling in the past, and how raw Lewis will be most of the season, that’s a scary proposition. The Tide has had issues in the past with turnovers, and unfortunately, there’s a really good chance that could hamper the Tide again this season. There is no question that limiting turnovers will be a major key for Alabama this year.
Another big key for the Tide will be the development of former blue-chipper John Petty at the off-guard spot. An obvious talent, Petty can set the entire gym on fire at times. However, his inconsistent play was baffling a year ago. Petty could shoot 10/13 and 7/9 from downtown in Coleman Coliseum on Wednesday night and then turn around and shoot 1/8 and 0/6 from the perimeter on the road Saturday afternoon. Unsurprisingly, Alabama typically won when Petty was on, and typically took an ‘L’ when he wasn’t. He was also a liability defensively. The good news is that those are typically the two areas where players see the most improvement as they get more experience and spend more time on the court and in the weight room. If Petty can play to his ceiling more often and raise his floor by a significant amount, the sky is the limit for him.
Diante Wood is a true freshman that has sort of flown under the radar, but the kid can play. A 4-time state champ in high school and the runner-up for Mr. Basketball in the state of Alabama this past season, the 4-star product out of Sacred Heart High School could see some decent minutes for the Tide, especially if he can shoot the ball as well as he did at the previous level.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the people’s champ, Lawson Schaffer. The Law-Dog will round out the rotation for the Tide’ backcourt, and honestly, he is probably the best ball-handler on the team. So, the long-time walk-on may be able to carve out a role this year.
Wings and Forwards
Easily the most exciting area off the Tide’s roster will be on the wings this season. Lanky sophomore Herbert Jones returns after a very promising debut season a year ago. At 6’7, Jones is one of the best defenders in all of college basketball. He can defend every position 1-4, and his ability to create turnovers and get down the floor will be massive for Alabama this season. There are NBA Scouts that think Jones could be a first round pick this upcoming summer if he can polish his game on the offensive side of the court and develop more of a jumper. He’s a special player and a guy that Alabama is lucky to have.
Texas transfer Tevin Mack will be eligible to join the Tide this season after sitting out the 2017-18 campaign, and that is a very exciting prospect for Alabama. Mack was the leading scorer as a true freshman for the Longhorns two years ago, averaging 14.8 PPG on a 45.9%/39.1%/58.8% split. Obviously, Avery Johnson would like to see that free throw percentage increase quite a bit, but adding a 6’6 guy who is a proven scorer will go a long way for Alabama in a post-Sexton world. Expect Mack to be one of Alabama’s go-to guys on the offensive end of the court.
Super Senior Riley Norris also returns for his eleventy-billionth season for the Tide. The 6’7 swingman has been the ultimate glue-guy for Alabama for years now, and he was dearly missed last season after injuring his hip before the 2018 calendar year even started. Having Norris’ leadership on the court will be huge for ‘Bama. As mentioned, he’s a jack-of-all-trades: he can defend most positions as well as anyone besides Herb Jones, he rebounds the ball at a very high clip for someone his size, and he has the ability to knock down shots from the perimeter. His high motor is an invaluable trait, and honestly it’s a joy to see him back out on the court in Crimson and White for another season.
Last, but certainly not least, the Tide big men round out the rotation. Senior Donta Hall is the crown jewel of the ‘Bama bigs. A defensive stalwart with an athleticism-length combo that kills, Hall is one of the premier shot-blockers in the SEC. He also has an incredible knack for flushing the basketball down the hoop. There aren’t many players in the country who play better around the rim than Hall. His technical skills have never been his strength, but if Hall can develop a 15-foot jumper or significantly improve his back-to-the-basket game, he may just find himself on the First Team All-SEC roster come March.
Hall’s right-hand-man, massive 6’11 junior Daniel Giddens returns as well. Avery Johnson prefers to utilize a more athletic group on the floor, but there are times when he likes to let the Two Towers dominate on the glass and protect the rim. Giddens fits this role perfectly. While not the greatest of players on the offensive end, Giddens is an asset defensively and on the boards.
Also down low, second year post players Alex Reese and Galin Smith are joined by the 6’9 freshman, Javian Davis-Fleming. Davis-Fleming was one of the top players in the state of Mississippi for the 2018 class, and will likely be able to provide some quality depth as he shares time with Smith in the role of more traditional back-up bigs. Reese is an under-the-radar key for Alabama this season. By the end of his freshman campaign, Reese was one of the better shooters on the team. If he has continued to progress as a shooter and added the ability to attack off of the dribble, he could be a match-up nightmare for a lot of teams.
So, what’s in store for Tide Hoops in 2019? The truth of the matter is that there is a lot to be determined. Collin Sexton is no longer around to carry the team, but Alabama may not need anyone to provide a Herculean effort this season. ‘Bama will go from being one of the youngest teams in the country to one of the more experienced, there is a ton of athleticism and size on the roster, and the Tide should be one of the more physical teams in the conference. Avery Johnson has one of the best trios of wings in the SEC, as well as some of the most depth in the post. Ingram, Petty, Jones, Mack, Hall, and even Reese are all a few areas of their game away from being legitimate stars in their own right.
Of course, there are still concerns. The lack of a true starter at point guard will likely be an issue for the Crimson Tide most of the year. The next average free-throw shooting Alabama basketball team will be the best one in 15 years. And while any of those six guys mentioned above could become stars, they could all also continue to play at the same level and with the same flaws that they’ve dealt with their whole careers, which would leave the Tide in desperate need of gamers and shot-creators on the offensive end.
Overall, this team should have a high floor and a decently high ceiling. The SEC probably won’t be as deep as it was last season, but it will likely be better at the top between Kentucky, Tennessee, and Auburn. LSU and Vanderbilt will both be fielding rally talented teams. Mississippi State returns even more contributors from a year ago than Alabama does. Florida should once again feature a great balance of seasoned veterans with an influx of young talent. I expect each of those teams to be NCAA Tournament squads.
It won’t be easy with a schedule like the one Alabama has, but the expectation is another appearance in the Big Dance come March. If Avery Johnson can pull that off, he will be beloved in Tuscaloosa for some time. Things have been moving in the right direction, can Avery keep it rolling?
The Tide play their lone exhibition of the season at Coleman Coliseum tonight against Montevallo. Tip-off is set for 7:00 PM CT. Alabama begins the regular season a week from today, when Avery’s alma mater, Southern, comes to town.