It’s been two weeks since Jay Wright’s dominant Villanova Wildcats, the same team that eliminated the Tide in the second round, easily won their second national championship in three years, putting an official end to an incredibly eventful 2018 basketball season. Honestly, incredibly eventful might be an understatement when referring to this season of college hoops. From FBI investigations, to an upset-filled regular season, to a suddenly revamped and loaded SEC, it was a crazy year, and Alabama’s 2018 squad perfectly encapsulated it. Freshman phenom and Tide legend, Collin Sexton began the season under the cloud of the FBI investigation (though it was clear he was barely connected to it), the Tide spent the entire season taking turns pulling off upsets, only to be upset themselves, and, of course, the Tide were deeply entrenched in the incredibly balanced grind of the SEC schedule.
The youthful Tide ended the season on a terrible note, dropping their final five games of the regular season. What had been an up-and-down roller coaster of a ride all season seemed to have completely run off of the tracks. However, Alabama’s inexperienced bunch showed a lot of heart and maturity by putting that rough ending behind them and putting on the best post-season performance this program has seen in almost 15 years.
The 2018 season may be looked back on as a fun, yet frustrating one, but there is no doubt that Tide Hoops fans will forever cherish the five game stretch in March when Alabama finally put together a string of quality games that everyone had been expecting of them: beating eventual Sweet Sixteen team Texas A&M with an incredible buzzer beater from Sexton, drubbing top-seeded Auburn and taking the season series against them in Saint Louis, and winning a shoot-out against a very good Virginia Tech team who honestly deserved a better fate. That last outcome gave Alabama its first NCAA Tournament victory in 12 years, in the Tide’s first appearance in the big dance since 2012. It was an awesome run that was ended only by running into the buzz-saw that was Villanova this March, and it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened had the Tide gotten a better draw than having to play the eventual national champs in what was essentially a home game for the Wildcats.
Of course, Alabama had only themselves to blame for that poor seeding. It just goes to show how important it is to find consistent success during the regular season; a lesson I’m sure this soon-to-be veteran group of guys have taken to heart as the focus turns to the upcoming 2018-19 season.
The mood surrounding the Alabama basketball program right now is one of excitement and anticipation for another season with expectations of a March run. However, let’s not forget how close it was to being quite the opposite. There are still serious questions about the program right now. Was the 2018 post-season run a flash in the pan led by one of the best players in program history? Or was it the beginning of a long and successful run of quality basketball in Tuscaloosa?
Three seasons into the Avery Johnson era, it’s not too difficult to predict what his teams are going to look like here in Tuscaloosa. They will be long and very talented. They will continue to play hard and defend with the best of them. And they will have some high ceilings. However, it seems Avery isn’t going to get too involved in running set plays on the offensive end. Which is fine, Villanova ran very few designed plays this season as well. But you’ve got to have shooters and shot creators in order for that to be successful, and Alabama has lacked that early on in Avery’s tenure.
That’s not to say they will again next season. Alabama will be bringing back damn near everybody with the exception of Sexton, and will also welcome in a couple of talented freshmen and a transfer with proven production at the highest level.
The first thing that has to be addressed is the loss of Sexton. There is no single way to replace Collin. Not only was he the best scorer on the team, he was also the only true point guard outside of Avery Johnson Jr. While Dazon Ingram has experience as the primary ball-handler, it’s not really a position he is best utilized in. Incoming four-star freshman Jared Butler will have some pressure on him to come in and provide quality minutes at the point. Not the kind of pressure Sexton had to face, but Alabama needs a quality ball-handler and distributor. Fortunately, those are strong traits of Butler’s. He won’t be, and shouldn’t be, expected to be much of a scorer or on-ball defender, but if he can grow into a legitimate starter at point guard by the end of the season, Alabama will have a lot of success.
Tevin Mack, the transfer from Texas, will be the one looking to help replace the void left in the scoring department. Before transferring away midway through the 2016-17 season, the upcoming 6’6 junior was the Longhorn’s leading scorer from the wing. averaging 14.8 PPG on 45.9%/39.1%/58.8% splits. The 58.8% from the free throw line is concerning (albeit not uncommon on this team, unfortunately), but Mack is a proven commodity as a scorer, and his length also makes him a solid rebounder and decent defender as well. Expect Mack to start from game one.
Butler and Mack will be key to a successful transition post-Collin Sexton, but what will ultimately be the difference in whether or not this team can take the next step towards being true contenders in the SEC will be the returning guys. Alabama has a bunch of quality players who are strong in certain areas of their game, but need serious work in others. For one, they all need to work on their free throw shooting. It’s been consistently bad in Tuscaloosa for a long time now, and that needs to change. There is a significantly strong correlation between successful teams and teams that shoot free throws well. It’s a massive advantage in college basketball when your team gets to the line and knocks down their shots.
Individually speaking, nearly every player on this roster has a shot at being a professional basketball player one day (not necessarily in the NBA) if they improve in certain areas of their respective games. Dazon Ingram and Braxton Key are the first two that come to mind. These guys can both be All-SEC players next season. They are both long, strong defenders, good at attacking the hoop off of the dribble, and quality rebounders. There are two areas that are holding them back: ball security and shooting. Key has already seemed to improve quite a bit at taking care of the ball, as he was playing with good control late in the season. His FG and 3P percentages this season look terrible, but he’s honestly not far off from being a good shooter. He must have missed more good looking shots than anybody I’ve ever seen in Crimson and White. Ingram needs to settle down and make better passes, but if he can develop a decent mid-range game and learn to make quality passes, he could be awesome. It’s not easy to defend someone who can attack the rim like he can when said player is also capable of pulling up or passing off to an open man.
Both of those guys are this close to becoming the type of players Jay Wright has built his elite program on. Long wings who can play position-less basketball and attack teams in space and in isolation from multiple spots on the floor. You can throw Herbert Jones into that category as well. Jones is also a consistent jumper away from being a nightmare for opposing teams. He’s already one of the better defenders in the SEC. If I’m Avery Johnson, I’d have these three guys shooting 1000 shots a day from now until November.
Speaking of shooting, Alabama will return one of their blue-chip freshmen from this past season, the mercurial John Petty. Petty was an incredibly frustrating player to watch in his freshman campaign, mostly because everyone knows how good of a player he can be. If Petty becomes more consistent from downtown, look out. Because he can get scorching hot from the perimeter. Petty’s biggest issues are the type of problems one would expect from a true freshman who is getting used to playing organized basketball (i.e. not AAU) at a high level: turnover issues, not knowing where to be on defense, committing to rebounding, etc. If any player on the team has an obvious path to stardom at this level, it’s Petty.
Alex Reese and Galin Smith both showed flashes of quality play at times this season. If Reese can work on attacking off of the dribble, he could be a match-up nightmare offensively. He’s already shown how capable of a spot-up shooter he is as a stretch-four, but if he can learn how to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, watch out. There were a number of times late in the season when teams started respecting his range and over-committing to him on the arc where a quick jab-step and baseline drive would have resulted in an easy look for either Reese or a teammate, but Reese just doesn’t have that ability yet (he and Dazon really need to work together because if they could turn each other’s scoring weaknesses into strengths...). Smith was incredibly raw early on this season, but he showed strong growth in the post by the end of the year. He just needs to keep learning the game and progressing as a player, and for the love of Denny Chimes someone teach him how to shoot a free throw.
Donta Hall will head into his senior year with a legitimate chance to get drafted into the NBA. He’s an athletic freak who swats shots with the best of them and is a nearly automatic finisher around the rim. There are three areas that he can work on to make that dream of being drafted a reality: developing a mid-range jumper, working on playing with his back to the basket, and learning to stay grounded defensively. If he can check off two of these three things, he will be playing in the NBA.
Riley Norris and Avery Johnson Jr. will be back for their senior seasons as well, and both could provide major roles. Alabama clearly felt the loss of Norris’s veteran presence after his injury. He’s a critical glue guy that does just about everything. Those kinds of players don’t grow on trees. AJ can be a bit erratic, but he’s honestly a great second option at the point. He gets a bit more criticism than he probably deserves, especially since he is one of the few guys on the team that can create his own shot.
All of these guys will give Alabama a legitimate chance at making a run at the conference crown, if they can continue to improve their games. That’s without even mentioning Daniel Giddens, Lawson Schaffer, and incoming freshmen Diante Wood and Javian Fleming. The Tide may have some issues in 2019, but depth certainly won’t be one of them.
Wrapping It Up
The 2018 post-season will go down as one of the most satisfying in Alabama basketball history. Collin Sexton has officially writ his name in Crimson flame, and all of Tide Hoops faithful will forever thank him for his contributions to this program. Sexton was a fierce competitor, an electrifying and dynamic play-maker and an absolute joy to watch in Crimson and White. I’ve personally already set aside some cash to order his jersey at the next level. His leadership this post-season allowed the Tide to make the run that they did, and that will not be forgotten.
The question moving forward for Alabama basketball is a simple one: was this the beginning of something special, or just a flash in the pan? With an extremely deep and experienced group of talented players returning, the Crimson Tide should be expected to make a return to the NCAA Tournament in 2019. However, this group has the chance to be even better. Alabama basketball is in a good spot right now. Can Avery Johnson keep it rolling?