My dear friends and colleagues of RBR – your reigning SEC Champions and top-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide basketball team is back in action tonight, as the 2023-24 season begins in earnest against the Morehead State Eagles. There has been a lot going on with Tide Hoops since last season’s historic squad ended the year with a disappointing upset loss to San Diego State in the Sweet Sixteen.
But first, a personal note. You may have noticed (or maybe not, it is football season) the lack of content from yours truly. To keep it brief, I have been extremely busy in my personal life this year – I bought a new house, my daughter has turned from sweet, immobile infant into an incredibly fun, but incredibly exhausting toddler, and I’ve been putting in more time at the real-life office to support those two things. I know everybody is busy in life, so I’m not providing any kind of an excuse; rather, just a reason. Anyway, I’m giving it a go at Year 11 of my coverage of Tide Hoops on RBR, but just know that some of my work may be a bit leaner than usual. Fortunately, the rest of the Masthead here is full of fantastic writers who are more than capable of helping to supplement any Tide Hoops coverage you might desire. But enough about me, let’s get to the reason why you clicked open this article – Alabama Basketball is back!
There is no doubt that last season’s finish – an upset loss in the glass ceiling that is the Sweet Sixteen accompanied by an unimaginable level of noise and criticism from the media and both neutral and rival fans at large due to the “Brandon Miller” controversy (note that not a word has been said by most media members now about the latest developments in the Darius Miles case) – soured what was truly the best season in Alabama basketball history. Regular season SEC Champs. SEC Tournament Champs. The #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. I just want to take time again to focus on how incredible last season’s results were. Nate Oats has been a godsend for this program, and he’s not anywhere close to finished in Tuscaloosa either.
No, this year’s team won’t be as incredibly elite as last season’s squad. Brandon Miller is already making waves as the best non-Victor Wembanyama rookie in the NBA, Noah Clowney is also on an NBA roster, Charles Bediako got some bad advice, Jahvon Quinerly peaced out at the last minute of the 11th hour, and young promising players like Jaden Bradley and Nimari Burnett also decided to hit the transfer portal rather than stick around in Tuscaloosa for whatever their reasons may have been. That’s unfortunately the era of college sports that we live in today, particularly for basketball and especially for top-tier basketball programs.
Those same top-tier basketball programs also take advantage of the new world of transfers and NIL as well though, and Oats has done just that.
A Look at the New Roster
With only three returning scholarship players and zero returning assistant coaches, Oats certainly had his work cut out for him this offseason. He brought in the composite 16th-ranked recruiting class from this past cycle, which included a quartet of four-stars in big man Jarin Stevenson, wings Sam Walters and Mohammed Dioubate, and guard Davin Cosby Jr, who enrolled back in January and was technically and retroactively a member of the 2022 class.
Let’s start with Stevenson, who has reportedly looked like a Noah Clowney clone this preseason - even down to the jersey number. Jarin was projected to be one of the top recruits of the 2024 class and was expected to be a North Carolina lock since his mom played for the women’s team in Chapel Hill. However, Oats and company were able to woo him to Tuscaloosa by allowing him to reclassify and enroll this fall, a request that UNC was hesitant to oblige. The comparisons to Clowney aren’t surprising; watching his tape, his strengths clearly comp to that of Noah’s - long, athletic, can run the floor, physical around the rim, can occasionally stretch the defense with his shot, etc. If Stevenson can aptly fill the void Clowney left, that will go a long way in Alabama being able to avoid falling off much, especially on the defensive end, where Clowney was a monster.
If Stevenson is who the staff is hoping can replace Clowney, Sam Walters is the guy most likely to try to somewhat, maybe, if everything goes right, fill-in for Brandon Miller. Obviously, no one person is going to be able to replace the SEC Player of the Year who was arguably the best player in Tide Hoops history. Let me be very clear about that. But as a 6’8 wing who can really shoot it, Walters is Alabama’s best potential option this year. The long lefty shot a combined 11/18 from beyond the arc in the Tide’s two preseason scrimmages the past couple of weeks and finished with 42 points across both games.
Dioubate, Cosby, and the final member of the 2023 class - three-star wing, Kris Parker - aren’t expected to be heavily involved in the rotation for this year’s team, but each certainly has the talent to defy expectations. Cosby is a 6’5 true shooting guard who obviously has experience within the program and fits the bill of exactly the kind of player Oats is looking for. Parker is built from a similar cloth. Dioubate is more of a tweener as a forward, playing more like a power forward but at a small forward size. It’ll be interesting to see how his style is incorporated.
The biggest two additions of the offseason came via the transfer portal, though. 6’11 big man Grant Nelson was considered one of the best available players in the portal this year, and Alabama landed him over a bevy of other schools, mostly notably Arkansas. Nelson averaged 17.9 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.1 APG, and 1.7 BPG for North Dakota State last season. He’s really a unicorn of a player - with an arm-span well over seven feet, his ability to handle the ball and run the floor is incredibly rare. He can play out on the wing just as well as he does in the post, although he’s certainly much more of a slasher than a shooter. When he gets moving downhill, good luck stopping him from getting to the rim.
The other likely starter from the portal is the two-time defending CAA Player of the Year, Aaron Estrada. The 6’4 point guard is actually going to be on his fourth school in five seasons at Alabama. After a promising freshman season at St. Peter’s, Estrada transferred to Oregon for the 2020-21 season, where he only saw action in nine games. He then ended up at Hofstra where he was the star and main engine behind the Pride winning 20+ games each of the past two seasons and the CAA title last year. Estrada averaged 20.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.3 APG, and 1.5 SPG on shooting splits of 47.8%/36.8%/80.9% in 2023, and, like Nelson, was highly sought after in the portal this year. Plan on seeing a lot of these two guys this season, as they may be the two most critical components of this year’s team.
Nelson and Estrada will be joined by former Cal State Fullerton guard, Latrell Wrightsell, and former West Virginia big man, Mohamed Wague, as parts of the 2023 transfer class. Wrightsell is a 6’3 shooting guard who averaged 16.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.4 APG, and 1.5 SPG on 42.4%/38.3%/81.3% shooting splits last season in the Big West. The expectation is that he will be one of the first guys off of the bench who can come in and knock down shots in a three-and-D type of role. At 6’10, Big Mo Wague will be relied on to provide depth and size on the interior. He averaged 4.1 PPG and 3.1 RPG in a reserve role for the Mountaineers last season.
Of course, we can’t forget about the three Tide Hoopers who stuck around. Mark Sears is coming off a very productive season with the Tide where he was second on the team in scoring and third in assists. The hope is that Sears will be able to provide the veteran leadership and experience as the leader of the team and potentially put together an All-SEC type of season.
Rylan Griffen was a part of Alabama’s historic 2022 recruiting class and showed exactly why he belonged with that illustrious group at times last season. He was not very consistent, but he absolutely flashed at times and whether or not he takes a Year 2 leap will go a long way in deciding Alabama’s fate this season. Finally, fan favorite Nick Pringle could be looking at a starting spot at the five, backfilling for the departed Bediako. Pringle didn’t play heavy minutes last season, but the 6’10 senior was effective when he did.
Projected Starting Line-up:
POINT Aaron Estrada
GUARD Mark Sears
GUARD Rylan Griffen
WING Grant Nelson
POST Nick Pringle
Projected ‘Best Five’ Line-up:
POINT Aaron Estrada
GUARD Mark Sears
WING Sam Walters
WING Jarin Stevenson
POST Grant Nelson
Alabama basketball may not be in Alabama football territory in terms of yearly expectations, but Nate Oats has certainly raised the standard of Tide Hoops to a level not seen since the Wimp Sanderson days, if ever. With that being said, Alabama fans certainly shouldn’t expect a redux of last season. This year’s team is a blend of old and new, so it will take time for the fellas to work things out, especially on the defensive end, based on the results of the preseason scrimmages with TCU and Wake Forest. However, there is a ton of talent and a metric ton of size on the roster this year.
After Alabama’s first big season under Oats where the Tide swept both SEC titles and made it to the second weekend of the tournament in 2021, the 2022 team followed it up with an emotional roller-coaster of a season where they could both beat anybody and lose to anybody any given night. The 2022 really struggled on the defensive end compared to 2021 and 2023, and I can absolutely see that being the Tide’s Achilles Heel this year. But the 2022 team was also over-reliant on jump shots and guys who seemed disinterested at times. For that reason, I think the 2024 team will fall somewhere in between the 2022 and 2023 squads. I think the right leadership is in place, and again, the insane amount of size this year’s team has will make them really difficult to match-up with.
Expect early season hiccups as the team gels and hopefully improves on defense. Oats has, once again, loaded up the non-conference slate with a plethora of tough tests and difficult matchups, which should pay dividends come conference play. But when the SEC slate does roll around, Alabama should be considered a contender to once again cut down the nets and claim either or both of the conference titles. Selection Sunday should once again be about where Alabama falls in the field, and not if they are included at all.
The SEC will again be one of the toughest conferences in basketball, but my personal expectation is that Alabama should, once again, finish in the top four or five in the conference, be ranked most of the season, and be peaking at the right time to make another run come March. The 2024 team won’t be the dominant force that the historic 2023 squad was, but in basketball, success in March is all about getting it together at the right time, and the ceiling for this year’s team is Final Four worthy.
Can Nate Oats continue to prove he is one the game’s best by keeping Alabama at the top of the SEC and country this season? We’ll begin to find that out tonight, as the Tide hosts a Morehead State program that has been very successful over the years under the guidance of coach Preston Spradlin. The game will tip-off at 7:00 PM CST and will be streamed on the SEC Network+. Alabama is a 21.5-point favorite.