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2021 Alabama Basketball Review: The Tide’s elite offense led the way

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That’s right, I said “elite offense”

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament- Alabama vs Vanderbilt Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I know it seems as though I’ve been picking on the Alabama Basketball team during our first two installations — pieces on the season overview and the defense — but really, it comes from a place of love, albeit tough love for a mixed season. And in these good news-bad news moments, it’s better to rip the band-aid off all at once. For the most part, that pain is now over, because what we discuss today is a surprisingly good Alabama offense. Not just good; in fact, the Bama offense was elite by most metrics.

The defense may have let the team down in the end, and it may have been responsible for the majority of the losses, but the offense is what led the way to victory. We tend to think of the diminished three-point shooting this season, but really we are misremembering (or never really knew) how good the offense actually was.

We think of that better shooting 2020 team as being a better offensive one, but that’s not really the case. In 2020-2021, Alabama scored...79.7 points. In 2021-2022? 80.5, an almost identical output, in other words.

There are 358 schools that play NCAA Division One basketball. Would you be surprised to know that when adjusted for opponent, the Crimson Tide finished the season 16th in KenPom offensive efficiency? Remember all those strategies teams concocted to get ‘Bama to slow down, to work in the half court? They were largely unsuccessfu; in slowing the Tide down, as Alabama finished the season 11th in tempo — among Power 5 programs, only Arizona played at a faster pace. And it wasn’t being done against scrubs, either. The average defensive ranking of ‘Bama’s opponents? 10th.

In fact, even with shooting percentages down, Alabama’s offense was better than in 2020-2021.

What Went Right

In 2021, the Crimson Tide averaged 79.5 points per game, good for 8th in the country. That was not the product of running it up at home against scrubs, either. In fact, Alabama played even better away from Coleman Coliseum, where the Tide scored 80.1 PPG (4th in the nation), than at home (78.8 PPG, 54th). Yet, for all that, the Tide’s average margin of victory was just 3 points, and it was one of the least lucky teams in the nation (226th).

‘Bama was reasonably efficient as well, netting 1.058 points per possession. Alabama’s strategy of three-and-rim improved over last season as well. Whereas the 2020 Tide scored 34.9 PPG from the interior last season, in 2021 ‘Bama upped that interior scoring to 36.7 PPG (46.2% of scoring output).

Because of that better interior scoring, and a more aggressive attack near the basket, Alabama was also able to get to the line more frequently, and made free throws accounted for 18.9% of scoring — up from 16.5%. The Tide was also able to shoot better from the stripe, almost three-full percentage points (72.9%, up from 70.1%).

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Notre Dame vs Alabama Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The reason for that efficiency? Rebounding. And I think this is where the presence of more and healthier interior players became apparent the most — offensive rebounding. Last season, Herb Jones was the Tide’s leading rebounder on a per possession basis (16.9 per 100), with Darius Miles right behind him (13.1). Per 40 minutes, the leaders were Juwan Gary (13.9 TRB) and Herb Jones (9.0 TRB). Notice, however, that all three of those players are 6’6” swing-wings. They were either slashing to the basket for points, or following up perimeter misses. (Bless poor Bruner, he played his butt off, but was just never healthy).

However, in 2020, Alabama brought in PF Noah Gurley (6’9”) freshman C Charles Bediako (7’), and had a healthier James Rojas (6’9”). And those three players alone had almost as many rebounds as Keon Ellis, Jaden Shackelford, Josh Primo, John Petty and Jahvon Quinerly combined. High-energy, healthy Juwan Gary and Herb Jones were a force on the glass, to be sure. But it was because they had to be. There simply was no size on the 2020 roster. The 2021 roster did not quite go through the post, but nor did it shy away from it either — and the result was that Alabama finished 11th in the nation in opponent-adjusted offensive rebound efficiency percentage.

All told, it was a remarkably efficient Alabama offense that did far more of its work from the paint than over last season, that was more aggressive in the post, that played at a faster tempo than in 2021, and that was able to score more against an even harder schedule than the 2020 Tide faced.

How tough were the defenses that Alabama played? Try this on. Here are the defensive efficiency rankings of teams that 2021-2022 Alabama Crimson Tide faced: No. 3, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 9, No. 10, No. 12, No. 23, No. 30, No. 38, No. 40, No. 44 — and that just gets us to Valentine’s Day.

This is why data are your friend.

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

We remember the cold streaks, the poor perimeter shooting, and the turnovers, but completely lose track of the many things that the 2021 Alabama offense was actually able to do. And in the three biggest games of the season — the ones that established national credibility — the Tide showed out versus elite defenses: 91 points against Gonzaga (9th in defensive efficiency); 87 against Baylor (5th in defensive efficiency); and 83 against Houston (6th defensive efficiency).

What Went Wrong

Alas, all these rainbows, puppies and skittles do hide a cancer in the clouds. There were two areas where the Alabama offense took demonstrable steps backwards, and which were partially responsible for its underachievement on the year: Perimeter shooting and turnovers.

I’m not telling you anything that you did not see with your own eyes: The 2021 Crimson Tide were remarkably sloppy with the basketball, even given the defenses they faced and the tempo at which they play.

If you want one culprit, then JD Davison unfortunately gets to bear a lot of the brunt here. He led the offense, after all. The true freshman PG was remarkably athletic, played hard on every possession, attacked the rim with slashing and penetration, got after rebounds, looked to distribute the ball...and sometimes seemed as though he could scarce dribble. While JD averaged 4.3 APG, he surrendered 3 turnovers per contest. In fact, when on the floor, he had a turnover percentage of 27.3%. When combined with his porous defense (which permitted 105 points per 100 possessions, versus 104 points scored per possession), JD’s total WAR was just 2.1 — and per game he contributed to just 9.7% of all of Alabama’s successful scoring plays.

JD was hardly alone, though. Shack (3.0) and Q (2.0) got in on the act with an additional 5 TO per game. While on a per-40-minute basis, JD, Q and Noah were responsible for 11.5 turnovers per game of Alabama’s 14.7 turnovers per contest (333rd in the nation). And the later in the season it got, the more cavalier the Tide became — in their season-ending game losing streak, Alabama committed 17.7 turnovers per game. Only seven teams in the nation were worse, including such luminaries as Dixie State, Prairie View A&M, Idaho State, and College of Charleston. Overall in Alabama’s 14 losses, the Tide turned it over 16.4 times per game.

Were the turnovers really that bad, given how much Alabama turned it over last season? The 2020-2021 team also turned it over a good deal. And, in raw numerical terms, it may not seem so (13.9%). But given the tempo, turnovers per possession is the better metric, and Alabama averaged a turnover on 19.8% of every possession vs. 17.1% in 2020.

Which brings us to that other bugaboo: shooting, and specifically perimeter shooting.

ICE COLD

Alabama’s system, a variant of “Five-Out” (and often way, way out), is one driven by the numbers. It is an analytical approach based on tempo, getting out on the break and volume shooting, particularly from the perimeter. Tempo does not necessarily just mean fast break opportunities, it means quick passes to the open man, or to the trailer, and then a quick shot. When it works, it is simply a thing of pure beauty.

But when it doesn’t work...well. When it doesn’t work, you see 2021-2022 Alabama’s perimeter woes.

Because Alabama is a high-volume shooting team, it may never have the greatest shooting percentage. There are simply too many launches from deep for that to happen. But, neither is cold shooting necessarily looked down up: Nate Oats believes in just continuing to launch them. Shoot yourself out of a slump; the percentages will eventually work in your favor.

However, this season, that accuracy just never really materialized. And it wasn’t from the Tide’s lack of trying. This season, Alabama attempted a perimeter shot on 47.6% of their possessions, 30 per game. Alabama shot the 6th most threes, and were 12th in the nation in threes-as-a-percentage of plays. That is roughly on par with last season, where the Tide chunked it up 29.9 times per game.

In 2020, the team shot 35.9% from the perimeter, which was just 100th in the nation in accuracy — not great on paper, but given the volume shooting approach, that is very respectable. However, in 2021-2022, the Tide’s accuracy was simply woeful, dropping all the way down to 30.9% from deep, and “good” for just 302nd in the nation. And when the Tide were off, they were way, way off. At Kentucky, ‘Bama went 3-30 from the arc; 11 of 40 at LSU; 8 of 34 in a first round SEC tournament exit; 6 of 30 to Mississippi State, etc. — and all were losses.

Nor was this something you could really pin on any one person having a down year, although, without a doubt, Jahvon Quinerly had the most miserable season shooting the ball.

How bad was it? Only two Alabama players even finished hitting at or above that 30.9% average on the season: Keon Ellis (36.6%) and Jaden Shackelford (35.5%). JD Davison was right at 30% for year. And Q especially took a major step back in 2021. Last season, Jahvon shot 43.4% from deep, including 50% in conference games, and 41.4% against Top 50 teams. This spring, however, Q was just a different player. His accuracy plummeted to just 28.1%. In SEC play it was just 27%, and against Top 50 opponents it fell even further, down to 26.4%. Even as his defensive rebounding, assists, and blocks improved, his ball security and shooting dissipated. Because of that, Q would wind up the 2021-2022 season as one of just four ‘Bama players with an overall minus (-1.1), and the only starter who had no wins over replacement.

It was a team that shot poorly, and in part, it did so because it rebounded and defended poorly. This allowed teams to get back on defense, and forced Alabama to work against set defenses in the the half-court far more often, taking many more contested shots.

Nevertheless, when the Tide took care of business, it was an offense that was able to play at a high level.

Fortunately for Alabama, more nights than not they were able to offset a weakness in one phase of the offense by a having good night in another. Thus despite its weaknesses, because of ‘Bama’s improved interior game, gains in offensive rebounding, and just enough perimeter shooting, it was still an elite offense that hit 80 points per contest.

Tomorrow, we’ll wrap it all up with our final piece reviewing the 2021-2022 season. For now, take our poll, and free to chime in below about the Tide offense.

Poll

What was more surprising to you in 2021-2022?

This poll is closed

  • 42%
    Poor perimeter shooting
    (61 votes)
  • 30%
    Turnover woes
    (44 votes)
  • 24%
    That Alabama was still able to field an elite offense despite its problems
    (35 votes)
  • 2%
    Other
    (3 votes)
143 votes total Vote Now