How Did We Get Here?
In college basketball, there are rebuilds. That describes what Frank Martin inherited at South Carolina four years ago, or what Bruce Pearl took over at Auburn two years ago: the roster is depleted, either because the previous coach didn’t recruit well or because players were constantly leaving the program.
And then there’s what might be better called a rebrand. The program has been underachieving (at least by its standards), but the talent is there, and it’s more of a management issue than anything else. That pretty aptly describes what Avery Johnson inherited at Alabama a year ago. Anthony Grant went 54-48 in the SEC in six years in Tuscaloosa: not good by any stretch, but hardly disastrous. What got him fired was that Alabama rightly expects a lot better than that: from 1982-2006, Alabama went to 17 NCAA Tournaments and had an 18-17 record in the tournament, and also won a pair of SEC regular-season titles in that stretch. Grant made the tournament once in six years, but mostly fielded a middling SEC team.
Johnson inherited a roster that was littered with former Top 150 recruits and had a legitimate All-SEC player as well. There might have been some minor roster issues, but there wasn’t going to be a lot of heavy lifting required just to get the team competitive in the SEC.
Still, Alabama was widely projected toward the bottom of the SEC last year with most of the offensive guns gone after 2014-15. The Tide dropped from 52nd to 164th in offensive efficiency, but Johnson got the defense to improve from 83rd to 48th, largely due to improved defense in the paint. Alabama managed to hang around the fringes of the NCAA Tournament bubble due to some impressive early-season wins -- neutral-court wins over Wichita State and Notre Dame, a road win over Clemson — but a late-season fade that saw them lose six of their last eight (including a loss to Creighton in the opening round of the NIT) knocked them out of the tournament.
That was a lot better than everyone thought it would be, though it was accomplished with a lot of smoke and mirrors: Alabama was outscored by 1.4 ppg over the course of the season, which belied its 18-15 final record. The Tide were 6-3 in games decided by five points or less, while being on the losing end of some blowouts: a 32-point loss at Dayton in November and three losses to Kentucky by a combined 67 points.
And now, Alabama has to figure out a way to replace Retin Obasohan. As a senior, Obasohan improved his scoring average from 6.2 to 17.4 ppg and was selected to the All-SEC first team. The Tide also lost two other starters in Arthur Edwards and Michael Kessens (the latter of whom transferred), and backup guard Justin Coleman also elected to transfer.
Still, while that leaves Alabama with quite a bit to replace, both Kessens and Coleman seem to have seen the writing on the wall. Avery Johnson adds four transfers to this year’s team (two of whom practiced with the team last year while sitting out, and the Tide also added a Top 100 freshman and a Top 10 juco transfer.
One annoyance I have with team recruiting rankings is that they tend to place a great degree of emphasis on the number of players you signed, and that’s why Alabama’s 2016 recruiting class ranked 49th in the country (and 8th in the SEC) according to 247 Sports. And yet, in terms of the average ranking of the incoming players, only Kentucky ranked higher than Alabama’s two incoming recruits.
What’s more, the recruiting rankings above don’t consider transfers (of which Alabama has four on this year’s team), and Alabama will also get a boost from the “addition” of Dazon Ingram, who started seven games last year before going down with a knee injury. In spite of the loss of Obasohan, there is a very good chance that this year’s Alabama team has more talent on the roster than last year’s.
|Justin Coleman||26.2||7.8||2.0||3.3||2.0||0.7||1.2||Transfer (Samford)|
|12||Dazon Ingram||6'5"||205||FR.||0.8566||25.6||7.7||5.9||3.3||3.4||1.1||0.4||Medical redshirt in 2015-16|
|3||Corban Collins||6'3"||190||SR.||0.8556||28.7||11.0||2.5||3.0||1.2||1.2||1.0||Graduate transfer (Morehead State)|
|5||Avery Johnson Jr.||5'11"||187||SO.||0.8162||4.3||1.4||0.2||0.1||0.2||0.0||0.0||Transfer (Texas A&M); sat out 2015-16|
|22||Ar'Mond Davis||6'6"||190||JR.||0.9200||Transfer (College of Southern Idaho)|
Avery Johnson mostly played two-guard lineups in 2015-16 and with only five scholarship guards on the roster (two more are listed with the “guard/forward” designation), Alabama figures to do that again.
But at the very least, the Tide should have a pair of talented guards in the starting lineup. Dazon Ingram was a starter from day one in his true freshman year, starting Alabama’s first seven games of the season before a broken foot ended his season. The 6’5” redshirt freshman from Theodore, Alabama, has the attention of NBA scouts with his size and ability to play the point, and he’s already appearing on some mock draft boards on the internet. But his early play in his freshman year showed that he still has a long way to go: he committed 24 turnovers in seven games, though he did shoot 54.1 percent from the floor. But the talent is there, and he has a coach who knows quite a bit about playing point guard in the NBA.
Likely joining Ingram in the backcourt will be Ar’Mond Davis, a 6’6” junior from Tacoma, Washington, by way of the College of Southern Idaho. As a sophomore, Davis averaged 17.1 ppg and shot 38.5 percent from three-point range, and he has the size to be a plus defender on the perimeter (he averaged more than a steal per game at the juco level.) Like Ingram, Davis has plenty of talent, but with essentially a brand-new backcourt it’s a matter of how quickly they jell with each other and adjust to SEC play. If that happens, Ingram and Davis could take Alabama a long way.
Alabama also has three players with varying degrees of Division I experience coming off the bench. Corban Collins is in his second go-round in the SEC; after playing his freshman year at LSU, Collins transferred to Morehead State for two seasons. Now he’s back at Alabama as a graduate transfer. The 6’3” senior from High Point, North Carolina, was an efficient point guard in the OVC, but previously struggled at LSU; here, he’s probably going to be asked to give efficient minutes off the bench while not playing a big role.
Brandon Austin was a three-star recruit out of high school and played sparingly as a freshman at Alabama -- though he did average 15 mpg in Alabama’s last three games (the two SEC Tournament games and the NIT loss to Creighton). But the 6’5” sophomore from Montgomery struggled mightily with his jump shot, shooting just 20 percent on three-pointers as a freshman. If he can get his shooting stroke going, Austin could be a valuable backup guard.
Avery Johnson Jr. is, of course, the coach’s son and transferred from Texas A&M after his dad got the Alabama job. Avery Jr. played just 56 minutes in his lone year with the Aggies and is strictly depth at this point. It’s an understatement to say he isn’t the player his father was.
|Michael Kessens||16.6||3.7||3.5||0.6||0.9||0.4||1.4||Transfer (FIU)|
|0||Nick King||6'7"||230||JR.||0.9838||18.9||7.2||4.8||1.0||1.0||0.3||1.7||Transfer (Memphis); sat out 2015-16|
|21||Bola Olaniyan||6'7"||220||SR.||NR||23.9||7.8||8.8||0.8||1.6||0.2||2.8||Grad transfer (Southern Illinois)|
|4||Daniel Giddens||6'11"||235||SO.||0.9800||Transfer (Ohio State); sitting out 2016-17|
Perhaps no player sums up how the last few years have gone for Alabama than Shannon Hale. The 6’8” senior from Johnson City, Tennessee, came to Tuscaloosa as a four-star recruit and showed promise averaging 8.8 ppg as a freshman. But the last two years have seen him stagnate: Hale saw his scoring average drop to 8.2 ppg as a sophomore, and while he bounced back to average 10.8 ppg as a junior, that came with a 45.3 percent effective field goal percentage. His assist, block, and steal rates also dropped.
Now, as a senior, Hale has one last chance to live up to the promise he showed as a freshman — but he may have to fight just to get on the floor. Avery Johnson signed Braxton Key, the nation’s 57th-best recruit per 247 Sports, who will challenge for early playing time. The 6’8” freshman from Charlotte played last year at Oak Hill Academy and was the leading rebounder on a loaded team. That’s an area where Alabama was weak last season, and Johnson might play the freshman in an attempt to shore it up.
It’s a similar story on the wing, where Riley Norris — who averaged 7.5 ppg and 5.3 rpg as a sophomore — will have to compete for minutes with Memphis transfer Nick King, also a junior. But in spite of being just 6’7”, Norris led Alabama in rebounding last season (and, unofficially, led the team in hustle plays) and there’s going to be a role for him on the team.
King was a former four-star recruit (and was ranked the #42 recruit nationally out of high school) who struggled to get his shot going in two years at Memphis. Like Norris, he’s a versatile wing player but he may also be a better defender. Neither player has really shot the lights out at the college level, though.
And in the middle? Last year, Alabama blocked 14.2 percent of opponents’ shots, 13th in the country, and Jimmie Taylor and Donta Hall had a lot to do with that. Taylor, a 6’10” senior from Greensboro, Alabama, has been a steady presence in the middle for the Tide over the last three years. Taylor doesn’t provide much in the way of scoring — though he shot 57.1 percent from the floor last year, suggesting that when he does get in position to score, he makes the most of it -- but he ranked fifth in the conference in blocks last season.
Right behind him in sixth was Hall, who averaged 1.7 blocks per game in spite of playing just 12.8 minutes per game. Per Ken Pomeroy, Hall’s 14.1% block percentage would have ranked second in the country had he played enough minutes to qualify. Like a lot of young big men, the 6’9” sophomore from Luverne, Alabama, struggled with foul trouble, but that’s a bit less of a concern on a team that also has Taylor on it. In spite of being a bit raw offensively, Hall shot 60.7 percent from the floor (though he took just 61 shots). If anything, it shows that Hall and Taylor are both pretty good at picking their spots. Whatever the case, Johnson has two of the SEC’s best shot blockers at his disposal, which should give Alabama one of the league’s best interior defenses.
Late in the summer, Alabama also added some depth in the form of Bola Olaniyan, a 6’7” graduate transfer from Southern Illinois. Olaniyan was second in the MVC in rebounds per game last year, and if he can find playing time in a deep frontcourt could help shore up a team that ranked last in the SEC in defensive rebounding last year.
Daniel Giddens, a former four-star recruit, will sit out this year after transferring from Ohio State but will practice with the team.
|11/3||Faulkner (exhibition)||7:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|11/11||Coastal Carolina||8:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|11/18||Ball State||8:00 PM||SEC Network|
|11/21 to 23||Las Vegas Main Event|
|11/29||Charleston Southern||6:00 PM||SEC Network|
|12/2||at Texas||8:30 PM||ESPNU|
|12/11||at Oregon||5:00 PM||ESPNU|
|12/15||USC Upstate||7:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|12/21||vs. Arkansas State (Huntsville, AL)||8:00 PM||SEC Network|
|12/29||Stetson||7:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|1/3||at Mississippi State||7:30 PM||SEC Network|
|1/14||at LSU||2:30 PM||SEC Network|
|1/21||at Auburn||3:00 PM||ESPN or ESPN2|
|1/25||at Georgia||8:00 PM||ESPNU|
|1/28||Mississippi State||5:00 PM||SEC Network|
|2/1||at Arkansas||6:00 PM||SEC Network|
|2/4||Auburn||7:30 PM||SEC Network|
|2/7||at South Carolina||5:30 PM||SEC Network|
|2/15||at Missouri||7:30 PM||SEC Network|
|2/18||LSU||2:30 PM||SEC Network|
|2/23||Georgia||6:00 PM||ESPN or ESPN2|
|2/25||at Texas A&M||TBD||ESPN or ESPN2|
|3/1||Ole Miss||7:30 PM||SEC Network|
|3/4||at Tennessee||12:00 PM||SEC Network|
One of the reasons that Alabama managed to hang around the NCAA Tournament conversation for much of last season was the team’s nonconference schedule, and that’s a plus this year as well. If the Tide can make the most of home games against Dayton and Clemson, as well as road trips to Texas and Oregon, Alabama could have some quality wins in its back pocket heading into SEC play. There are also some quality mid-majors on the schedule that could be stumbling blocks: Valparaiso and possibly BYU in the Las Vegas Main Event, as well as home games against Ball State and Coastal Carolina early on.
The SEC schedule, though... well, Alabama draws Missouri, Mississippi State, Auburn, and LSU twice each. That could be a problem if the bottom falls out for LSU and Missouri, Mississippi State, and Auburn aren’t improved, though especially with the latter two there’s a good chance that they will be. Still, Alabama could benefit from getting Kentucky, Florida, and Vanderbilt all at home.
The record in 2015-16 wasn’t much different, with Alabama finishing 18-15, 8-10 in the SEC, and making the NIT in Avery Johnson’s first year — which, well, wasn’t much different from a 19-15 (8-10 SEC) record in Anthony Grant’s last season. But the outlook for the program seems almost night and day different.
That was the biggest change in Johnson’s first year. There’s just a lot more optimism around the program than there was under Grant, and now that Johnson has had a year to build the roster to his liking, the optimism might be matched with results. Alabama has a deep and experienced frontcourt, and the Tide also have not one but two of the SEC’s best shot blockers. The backcourt is a bit of a question mark, but there’s talent there as well.
So how does this team rank 7th in the SEC according to TSK’s contributors? Well, the biggest issue is that while Alabama has some talent, there are relatively few proven contributors. Dreaming on talent, Alabama could be one of the top three teams in the SEC and make the NCAA Tournament, but there are too few proven parts and too many newcomers to assume anything. There’s upside here but everything will have to come together — or, with a difficult nonconference schedule, the season could effectively be over by the end of December.
That said, finishing in the middle of the SEC and making the NIT seems like a worst-case scenario for this team.
If all goes well, Avery Johnson could bring an end to Alabama’s four-year NCAA Tournament drought.