It’s been a long, chaotic trip since the college basketball season was cancelled last March. But while most of the world was dealing with a raging pandemic and the fallout that ensued because of it, Nate Oats was subtly building a loaded roster in Tuscaloosa. Now, it’s time to finally see the fruits of his labor, as the 25th-ranked Crimson Tide are set to host the Jacksonville State Gamecocks in the season opener tonight.
The buzz around the program right now is pulpable, and it matches any that Tide Hoops fans have experienced in the last ~20 years. With a bevy of talented newcomers joining up with a trio of seniors in John Petty, Herbert Jones, and Alex Reese, not to mention the sophomore shooting sensation, Jaden Shackelford, the Tide is all set to make this a season to remember at the Capstone.
That all starts tonight, as Alabama welcomes in their cross-state neighbors from Jacksonville. The Gamecocks are coming off their worst season under fifth-year head coach Ray Harper, as they finished 13-19 overall and 8-10 in OVC play, their first losing conference record since before Harper was hired. Because of that finish, Harper, much like Oats, set out to revitalize his roster for the 2021 season. Only one starter from last year returns, and the Gamecocks will rely heavily on a group of transfers to get them back to being contenders in the OVC again.
This is also (sadly) a bit of a revenge game for the Tide, after Jacksonville State beat Alabama in a closed scrimmage prior to the 2018-19 season two years back. That upset loss foreshadowed a disappointing final campaign for Avery Johnson. Because of that season though, Alabama did end up with Oats, who put this whole revamp into motion, so maybe Tide fans should be applauding Jacksonville State tonight?
What to Watch For
The New Blood. Without question, the main attraction for tonight’s game is going to be all of the new talent that Oats and company brought in this season (shout-out to ace recruiters Bryan Hodgson and Antoine Pettway). Point Guard Jahvon Quinerly may be the most anticipated addition to this year’s team. The former McDonald’s All-American had to sit out last season as one of the only denied transfer waivers in college sports, for some reason. But, that’s all (mostly) water under the bridge now. Quinerly will be tasked with taking over for lottery-pick Kira Lewis as the primary ball-handler this season. His speed and quickness makes him a perfect fit in Oats’ up-tempo schemes. Just wait to see this kid fly up and down the court.
Additionally, Alabama also brought in arguably the top grad-transfer available on the market this past off-season in big man Jordan Bruner. The 6’9 post will likely round out the starting five for the Tide this year and will bring a level of skill that Tide fans haven’t seen out of a big since JaMychal Green graced the hardwood of Coleman Coliseum. Potential one-and-done freshman, Josh Primo, will be called upon heavily to create in the half-court. The 6’6 do-it-all guard can score in a number of different ways, and may even end up becoming the secondary ball-handler this season. He was the main gem of a top-15 2020 recruiting class that included four-star post, Keon Ambrose-Hylton, and three-star wing, Darius Miles,
Finally, JUCO transfer Keon Ellis is definitely someone to keep an eye on tonight. The 6’6 guard is as athletic as they come, with the ability to get hot and knock down shots as well. Expect to see him flying around the court. And welcome back James Rojas and Juwan Gary, who both missed all of last season with knee injuries. Rojas is another former JUCO guy with a skill set very similar to Bruner’s. Gary was the highest rated prospect in Oats’ 2019 class, as he graded out even higher than Shackelford.
- Defensive Improvements. The lack of depth the Tide suffered from last season certainly didn’t help matters, but Alabama’s defense at times last year was abhorrent. Clear improvement is needed on the defensive end of the court if the Tide want to make a serious run at its lofty goals for the season. Petty made some significant strides last year, and we all know how much of a force Herb is on the defensive end, but they need help. Bruner will likely loom large in this regard, as he was one of the better defenders in the Ivy League for Yale last season. When you have stoppers like Herb and Bruner playing around the basket, it really makes defense a lot easier for your guards and wings.
- Jacksonville’s Big Three. Not much is known about the Gamecocks this season; they are quite the mystery. What we do know is that senior Kayne Henry, the lone returning starter, will be their best and most impactful player. He averaged 10.8 PPG, 6.9 RPG. 0.8 APG, 0.8 SPG on 49.0%/35.6%/75.3% shooting last season. Expect Petty and Herb to spend plenty of time on the 6’7 wing. We also know that Jacksonville State had two transfers ruled immediately eligible to play (glares at the NCAA) that will make a huge difference in the paint. The pair of post players, Brandon Huffman from North Carolina, and Amanze Ngumezi of Georgia, will add serious size and talent in the low block. The Tide will need to hit the boards hard to keep the Gamecocks from getting extra possessions and easy put-backs.
- Limited Home Court Advantage. With COVID-19 spreading as much as it has since its initial outbreak in the United States, the university will be implementing major social distancing guidelines in order to help limit the spread in the community. Because of that, Coleman Coliseum will limit capacity to ~1,500 tickets a game this season. That will definitely cut down on home-court advantage quite a bit, but at least fans will be in attendance to bring some energy for the home team. Many schools aren’t allowing fans at all, so please, if you decide to go this season, follow the safety guidelines so that we can keep showing up for this team all year.
It’s an exciting time to be an Alabama basketball fan. With an influx of talent joining a strong veteran core, the Crimson Tide have the right mix to really contend in the SEC this season. An appearance in the NCAA Tournament feels like the baseline goal for the year. But, there is still a long way to go regarding those goals. It has to start tonight in Tuscaloosa. With the loaded field the Tide will face in Asheville next week for the Maui Invitational, the guys need all the work they can get tonight.
The game tips-off at 7:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.