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The Rising Tide: 2021 Alabama Basketball Preview

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Nate Oats is bringing ‘Bama Basketball back

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

2020 has been a miserable year, for just about every reason possible. I don’t have to wax poetic about it; every single one of us knows how much of a disaster this year has been, almost indiscriminately. But, for those of us that bleed crimson and white, things have been on the up and up as we close out the calendar year. Obviously, the top-ranked football team is well on its way to another SEC Championship Game appearance. The baseball team was honestly pretty dang good before the season got cancelled back in March, and there isn’t any reason to believe Brad Bohannon and the boys won’t pick up where they left off. There is a lot of optimism that our way of life will be back to normal sooner than later.

Oh, and Nate Oats has quietly been building a juggernaut in the basketball facilities.

Maybe it hasn’t been that quiet, if you’ve been following along with us here at Roll ‘Bama Roll. Regardless, Oats has passed the first few tests in Tuscaloosa with flying colors. Before the season began last year, I had this to say about the challenge the new head coach faced as he began is debut season:

Alabama is at a crossroads with its basketball program. With rising rivals and new powers emerging left and right, the Crimson Tide has to flip the script this decade and return to its rightful place near the top of the SEC

A quick return to success on the hardwood isn’t just ideal, it is necessary at this point. Tide Hoops has been the model of mediocrity for ~15 years and three head coaches now. Another string of average-at-best seasons would put Alabama basketball up there with the likes of Nebraska or Tennessee football: historic has-beens.

Fortunately, things are looking way up for Alabama. Nate Oats and his staff have things rolling right now: from completely revamping the roster in a single year, to landing heralded commits for future classes, Tide Hoops looks to be well on its way back to the top of the conference. Hell, the Crimson Tide is even ranked in the preseason coaches poll at #25, and just barely missed the cut in the AP Poll. Alabama hasn’t been ranked in the preseason since 2011-12. It’s not just us at RBR pumping the sunshine.

Scouting the Squad

With the season tipping-off tomorrow, let’s take one last look at the roster. There are a number of take-aways any Tide Hoops fan (legacy or bandwagoner, no judgment here) should be aware of as things get going in Tuscaloosa. The following should be how the rotation works out this season:

Starting Five

  • PG Jahvon Quinerly
  • G Jaden Shackelford
  • G John Petty
  • F Herbert Jones
  • F Jordan Bruner

Rest of the Rotation

  • G Josh Primo
  • G Keon Ellis
  • F James Rojas
  • F Alex Reese
  • F Keon Ambrose-Hylton
  • W Juwan Gary
  • W Darius Miles

Oats has said that he doesn’t necessarily want his best five guys to be his starting five, but I’d be pretty stunned if that predicted group above is incorrect.

The number one key to this season is point guard Jahvon Quinerly. The former five-star McDonald’s All-American transferred over from Villanova last season, but had to sit on the bench all year as he became essentially the only transfer player in recent memory that didn’t get a waiver to play immediately. That allowed Kira Lewis to shine as the bell-cow ball-handler, which enabled him to become a lottery pick in the most recent NBA Draft, but it significantly hurt the team as a whole. Oats was quoted as saying that Quinerly was the best player on the team last year, and certainly his high-school hype lends credence to that idea, but Quinerly failed to make much of an impact at Villanova his freshman season.

Much of that had to do with scheme and fit. Jay Wright has perfected slow-pace, optimal efficiency basketball. His Wildcats teams are extremely well coached, they buy into the program, and they certainly don’t lack for talent. But they are slow. That is the exact opposite of Quinerly’s style. Let’s just say there is a reason he’s in Tuscaloosa. His strengths are his speed, vision, and ability to run the floor and constantly push the pace. He’s not going to excel at running base-line screens and knocking down in-rhythm jumpers. He’s going to get up and down the court and either finish at the rim or set his teammates up for success. It’s a perfect fit with Oats’ philosophy.

But, as Quinerly is the only true point guard on the roster, it pretty much has to be a perfect fit. Remember whenever last year’s team had to run Oats’ frenetic, up-tempo style without Kira? The results were pretty disastrous.

The good news for Q is that he won’t be asked to score like Kira was, because Alabama has got some shooters on this squad. We all know about Petty and Shack’s bucket-making (combined 29.5 PPG on 46.2%/44.0%/67.4% and 41.3%/35.7%/76.8% shooting, respectively, last season), but with the additions of Ellis and Primo in the back-court, Quinerly should have a plethora of options to dish out assists to.

Primo was a border-line five-star prospect who was considered the best player in Canada in 2020. The 6’6 guard can do it all as a scorer on the offensive end: handle the ball, knock-down set shots, create off the dribble, finish at the rim, play PnR or PnP (Pick-and-Roll or Pick-and-Pop). He’s even been making appearances in 2021 NBA Mock Drafts as a potential one-and-done. Ellis was a 2nd-Team JUCO All-American last season. He’s an electrifying athlete that plays similarly to Primo.

The point is, this back court could be filthy. Lack of depth could hurt in the front-court, but with Herb and Bruner leading the way, Alabama certainly won’t be lacking in the paint. Bruner may be the greatest addition to the team. The 6’9 big averaged a near double-double at Yale a year ago, where he ended up making the Ivy League All-Conference first team. He actually led the league in DREB% and more than held his own any time he played Power Seven competition. With the ability to run the floor and even knock down perimeter jumpers, he is a perfect fit in Oats’ system.

James Rojas and Alex Reese will provide the majority of relief in the front-court, after Alex Tchickou’s unfortunate Achilles tear. Both are more of stretch-fours, so expect Keon Ambrose-Hylton to add minutes in the low block as well. Rojas was the same type of player as Bruner at the JUCO level, where he was named a first team All-American in 2019.

Juwan Gary and Darius Miles may not be relied on much this upcoming season. Miles is a true freshman that most projected to be a four-year player. The word out of practice so far has indicated that Gary has had a bit of an issue recovering from his ACL tear a year ago, and may be getting crowded out in the rotation.

Ultimately, this is Alabama’s best roster in a over a decade. Anthony Grant and Avery Johnson had some talented guys here and there, but nothing like this group. I haven’t even spent much time going over the guys we know: 1st-Team Preseason All-SEC Guard John Petty, walking bucket Jaden Shackelford, or ultimate Glue-Guy and Alabama Legend Herb Jones, who a lot of people close to the program are saying may finally have a bit of a jumper.

The roster that Nate Oats and company put together this season is night-and-day compared to where we were a year ago. Now, it’s time to put them to work. The hype has been manifesting in Tuscaloosa all year long, and finally, it’s time to see what fruit this group will bare. In a year where good news has been little and far between, Nate Oats is primed to finally bring positive headlines back to the Capstone’s basketball program.

Season Projections

SEC Tiers

Tier One (Final Four Contenders): Tennessee, Kentucky

Tier Two (NCAA Tournament Teams): LSU, Alabama, Florida, Arkansas

Tier Three: Ole Miss, Missouri, South Carolina, Auburn, Texas A&M

Tier Four: Mississippi State, Georgia, Vanderbilt

Predicted Finish

19-8 (12-6 SEC), 4th in the SEC, 5/6 Seed NCAA Tournament