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2021 Alabama Basketball Review: Part 1: Highs, Lows, Inconsistencies & Victims of Their Own Success

This was a team that was as good, and as bad, as literally anyone in the nation

Syndication: Tuscaloosa News Gary Cosby Jr. / USA TODAY NETWORK

This is the first of our three-part season-in-review for the 2021-2021 Alabama Crimson Tide basketball season. Today, we’re going to briefly recap the year and its accomplishments. The next installment will take a more granular look at why what happened, actually happened. And then we’ll wrap everything up with a nice bow, put it all together, and look ahead to the 2022 season — including post-season developments and recruiting.

So much was expected of the 2021-2022 Alabama Crimson Tide basketball team. It was a program coming off an SEC Title, an SEC Tournament Championship, a Sweet 16 showing in the NCAA Tournament, and a lofty No. 5 final ranking in the AP Poll. In just his second season, Coach Nate Oats had changed the culture of Alabama basketball, and the results were immediate and apparent. So too, however, were the expectations. And the expectations for this season were that this was Nate Oats’ first true team with his players; fans would finally look like the product that was promised, as opposed to the Frankenroster he had been overachieving with: defensive intensity, perimeter shooting, pressing tempo, crashing the boards, and getting after the rim.

Optimism was warranted, offensively at least. Alabama was returning Jaden Shackelford, Keon Ellis, Juwan Gary, and Javon Quinerly in what was expected to be a backcourt that would light teams up. Texas Tech transfer Nimari Burnett would be joining them on the wing. Down low, Alex Tchikou and James Rojas were going to be healthier. The Tide added F Noah Gurley from the Portal, and won the Charles Bediako sweepstakes to boost a frontcourt that has been deficient arguably since Jamychal Green took his talents to the NBA. Four-star SG Jusuan Holt joined blue-chip one-and-done PG JD Davison in a lethal, veteran frontcourt.

Coming into the year, the expectations for the No. 14 Crimson Tide were straight forward: Be a top-tier contender in the SEC, competitively navigate the most difficult schedule in the nation, make the NCAA tournament, and then have a solid run — a Sweet 16 was the benchmark most expected and not one out of reach.

But then the games had to be played on the court.

And no matter how much talent the Tide possessed, what happened on the court dwarfed expectations, as 2021 saw three dozen of the most exciting or frustrating games in modern Crimson Tide Basketball memory...and often in the same game.

It was a team that could and did beat almost anyone in the country, and which provided Alabama with the biggest regular seasons wins in program history. The Tide routed No. 3 Gonzaga in Seattle. It hosted one of the most intense regular season games you’ll see, as Alabama hung on to an 83-82 home win over No. 9 Houston in Coleman Coliseum. Alabama would then handle No. 4 Baylor wire-to-wire for 40 minutes in Tuscaloosa.

By January 29th, 2022, the Crimson Tide had played and beaten three teams that were in the 2020-2021 Final Four. By the time the conference season tipped off, the Tide had played seven nonconference teams coming off of an NCAA appearance, and another one that finished 3rd in the NIT.

In conference play, ‘Bama would likewise prove hard to handle for many teams, as they traveled to the O-Dome and picked up a rare road win in Florida. The defense came up big down the stretch in slugfest wins against the No. 13 Tennessee Volunteers and No. 15 LSU Tigers. The offense was able to outlast the red-hot No. 8 Arkansas Razorbacks — the Hogs went on a 14-2 tear to end the season, and only ‘Bama and UT marred their regular season 2022 calendar.

But, when the smoke had cleared in March, all Alabama had to show for those great memories were the cold hard numbers in the W-L column: Alabama had a .500 record in conference play. It had a blown lead and then a first-round SEC Tournament exit. That was followed up by a first-round NCAA tournament loss to a play-in team, where it was apparent the bubble Irish were not only the better team, but played as a team. And that culminated and a five-game losing streak to end the season. Three wins over Final Four teams; eight NET Q1 wins...and Alabama was 19-14 on the season and unranked.

Because, you see, while Alabama was capable of beating anyone in the country, it was also capable of losing to anyone in the country...and as we saw too often, it was more than willing to beat itself.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

While the lows weren’t quite David Hobbsian or reminiscent of those listless final months of Avery Johnson’s tenure, there were more than a few stinkers in there. The Alabama Crimson Tide blew a 12-point lead on the road against the Georgia Bulldogs, easily the worst team in the conference, to provide the now-fired Tom Crean with his only SEC win of the year. The Tide consistently overlooked midmajors, as it struggled against ULL, South Alabama, Iona, Jacksonville State, Drake and Belmont. In fact, it would outright lose two of those contests.

Playing up or down to opponents was a facet of the Crimson Tide we would see all season long. Alabama blew four late leads in losses to teams it had no business losing to, including the first round of the SEC tournament. For every game that the Tide players would show up motivated, as against LSU or Gonzaga, there was at least another where they played flat and sloppy against teams with far less talent — Notre Dame, Iona, Jacksonville State, Louisiana, and countless others. Nor was the bad loss in Athens anomalous, as Alabama would once again get smoked in Columbia, Missouri — a gym that is rapidly turning out to be every bit the house of horrors as Fayetteville or Auburn.

Those road losses were almost predestined, it seemed. On the road, the Tide were flat-out awful against anyone with a pulse. They posted a woeful 3-7 record in true road games, and got ran out of the gym in losses at Memphis, Lexington, and Auburn. Losing to three tournament teams — perennial power Kentucky, the eventual SEC Champion, and the AAC Runner-up — is nothing to hang your head about; but not getting off the bus was. And Alabama would lose those three games alone by 44 points.

It was a season where key contributors and starters were benched multiple times for disciplinary issues, attitude issues, and not doing things the right way, which made the end-to-end effort of James Rojas and Keon Ellis seem all the more futile. For every play where JD Davison was leaving it out on the floor — reckless as it may have been —, there would be someone like Shack or Q loafing on defense, or Charles Bediako trying to flat-foot rebounds against future NBA forwards.

And then the regular season ended with perhaps the most dispiriting Alabama loss since that woeful 2019 Norfolk State beatdown in the NIT that ushered Avery Johnson into retirement — a senior night contest against an average Texas A&M team, where Alabama simply had no interest in being there and got blown out on their home floor.

“Speechless” was how Coach Nate Oats described the locker room afterwards.

And speechless perhaps may be the best way to summarize the 2021 season. Jawdropping accomplishments, red-hot shooting, players diving on the floor, elbows swinging in the post for a clearout, guys following up their misses and going hard to the rim. Speechless in victory.

And speechless in defeat. Jawdropping laziness on defense. Intermittent effort. Coming out flat for entire halves. Carelessness with the basketball. Half-hearted attempts at rebounding. Blown leads. Unwillingness to be coached. Ice-cold perimeter shooting. Jawdropping losses.

Speechless may be the best way to summarize a season that was, in many respects, the best regular season that Alabama basketball has ever had. It is certainly a testament to how quickly Nate Oats has raised the bar for this program that it seems like underachievement that this team made another NCAA tournament appearance, posted eight Q1 wins, beat three teams from the Final Four, and will again put multiple players in the NBA. But, it does feel like an underachievement nevertheless.

2021 was every bit as good as the Tide wanted it to be, and every bit as bad as they made it. For better or worse, every accomplishment and every stinker was a well-earned one.

But at least we got this meme-worthy moment, as Nate Oats told sweaty, cheatin’ Will Wade the F’ out of Tuscaloosa:

...and it remains evidence of why I will still take a bullet for this man.

Up Next: What went right, what went wrong, and why on both counts.