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2017-18 SEC Basketball Season Preview: Alabama Crimson Tide

A Top 10 recruiting class gives Alabama massive upside in 2017-18.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Kentucky vs Alabama Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama Crimson Tide 2017-18 Season Preview

Head Coach: Avery Johnson (37-30, 2 years)

Last year: 19-15 (10-8 SEC); KenPom rating: 56

Returning starters: 4

Returning possession-minutes: 70.9%

Recruiting class ranking: #8 nationally; #3 in SEC


How Did We Get Here?

(Note: Five-star recruit Collin Sexton was held out of Monday night’s exhibition game against Alabama-Huntsville awaiting NCAA clearance. Much of this was written before that announcement; it’s unknown what Sexton’s status is going forward, but adjust your expectations accordingly if Sexton is ruled ineligible.)

If you had told me that Anthony Grant was never fired and had in fact been coaching Alabama for the last two years, I’d probably believe you.

In Grant’s six years at Alabama, the Tide finished in the top 100 nationally in offensive efficiency just twice, in his first year and his last year. But Grant also had two teams that finished in the top ten nationally in defensive efficiency. Avery Johnson’s first two teams have followed the same pattern: iffy offense (Alabama was 13th in the SEC in offensive efficiency last season) and strong defense (3rd in the SEC, and 10th nationally.)

Alabama’s defense and rebounding were good enough to keep them in most games, but the Tide just couldn’t score. They ranked 13th in the SEC in three-point percentage, 14th in free throw percentage, and 13th in turnover rate. Those are not good numbers. In SEC play, 21.1 percent of Alabama’s offensive possessions ended in a turnover.

It’s not clear whether the offensive issues had to do with coaching or talent, but if it’s a talent issue, that’s been addressed. Alabama signed the #8 recruiting class in the country that included arguably the country’s best point guard prospect and a five-star wing. If Avery Johnson can’t field an above-average offense with this team, that’s on him.

But even without a recruiting class this good, Alabama would probably be slated for improvement this season. The Tide return 71 percent of their possession-minutes from last season, and their two best players last year were freshmen. Unlike Missouri — where about 90 percent of the reason for optimism this season is because of a top 10 recruiting class — Alabama’s recruiting class might have taken them from a NCAA Tournament team to an SEC title contender.

That said, Alabama’s offense was truly awful at times last year — the Tide failed to even crack a point per possession in 12 of their 18 SEC games. The freshmen will fix some of that, but Alabama will need better performances from some of its returnees as well.


Backcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
2 Collin Sexton 6'3" Fr. #5 recruit
5 Avery Johnson Jr. 5'11" Jr. 6.9 ppg/1.4 apg
10 Herbert Jones 6'7" Fr. #146 recruit
11 Tevin Mack 6'6" Jr. sitting out 2017-18
12 Dazon Ingram 6'5" So. 10.6 ppg/4.5 rpg
22 Ar'Mond Davis 6'6" Sr. 6.0 ppg/1.5 rpg
23 John Petty 6'5" Fr. #32 recruit
24 Lawson Schaffer 5'11" Jr. walk-on

At most programs, Dazon Ingram’s performance as a redshirt freshman would have him penciled into the starting lineup entering his sophomore year. The 6-foot-5 sophomore was one of the SEC’s best at getting to the basket and either finishing (54.5 percent on twos) or drawing contact (Ingram’s 82.2 FT Rate in SEC play was third in the conference.) His turnover rate was a little high, and it would be nice if he shot better than 66 percent at the foul line, but it’s easy to see the upside here.

But Collin Sexton wasn’t brought in to be Ingram’s backup. Sexton was rated as the top point guard prospect in the Class of 2017 by the 247 Sports composite, and the #5 overall recruit in the country. Sexton averaged 31.7 ppg in the Nike EYBL and was the MVP at the FIBA U17 World Championship. He’ll start from day one at Alabama and will probably be the focal point of the offense. Ingram will either move off the ball (likely) or, less likely, come off the bench.

That still leaves open the question of what Alabama will do with another five-star recruit, John Petty. Compared to Sexton, Petty is a bit more raw but has a ton of upside, and while shooting isn’t his forte, he’s supposed to be great at getting to the basket. Johnson could certainly go with a three-guard offense, but playing Ingram and Petty together might leave Alabama with little threat from the outside.

Of course, it’s not like there are a ton of great options to stretch the defense. Avery Johnson Jr. (31.1 percent from three) and Ar’mond Davis (26.7 percent) attempted lots of three-pointers last year and didn’t make many of them. Those two and another freshman, Herb Jones, will provide depth off the bench -- and if any of them can provide a consistent threat from the perimeter, they’ll get plenty of playing time. But if nobody steps up, teams will probably just pack the lane and dare Alabama to hit jump shots.


Frontcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
0 Donta Hall 6'9" Jr. 6.0 ppg/5.5 rpg
1 Riley Norris 6'7" Sr. 9.0 ppg/3.8 rpg
3 Alex Reese 6'9" Fr. #96 recruit
4 Daniel Giddens 6'11" So. 3.8 ppg/3.6 rpg (Ohio St.)
25 Braxton Key 6'8" So. 12.0 ppg/5.7 rpg
30 Galin Smith 6'9" Fr. #272 recruit
33 Landon Fuller 6'8" So. walk-on

Braxton Key was Alabama’s leading scorer as a freshman, but his offensive performance left a lot to be desired. The 6-foot-8 Key’s shooting percentages were decidedly mediocre — 47.8 percent on twos, 33 percent on threes, 63.4 percent at the foul line — and he also averaged 4.2 turnovers per 40 minutes.

But somebody had to shoot the ball, and on a team that didn’t have a lot of good options on the offensive end, that was frequently Key. Probably more than anyone else, Key should benefit from the arrival of Sexton (among others), because he can settle in to being the second or even third option on the offensive end instead of having to do too much.

Key entered his name in the NBA Draft in the spring, but wisely pulled his name out — he has a lot of potential, but also quite a bit of work to do.

Donta Hall was still raw offensively -- his 65.8 percent from the floor was more a reflection of him only attempting chip shots than any real offensive skill — but his defensive presence on the low block was a big reason that Alabama’s opponents shot just 43.5 percent (the SEC’s best mark) on two-pointers.

And now, Alabama has another shot blocker in Daniel Giddens. The 6-foot-11 sophomore sat out last season after transferring from Ohio State, but he averaged 3.3 blocks per 40 minutes as a freshman. Those two should ensure that opponents will have a tough time scoring inside.

6-foot-7 senior Riley Norris is one of those guys who does a little bit of everything while not being great at anything in particular. He’s a career 34.7 percent shooter from behind the arc, and while his rebounding rate dropped from 5.3 per game as a sophomore to 3.8 last year -- that had more to do with the emergence of Key and Hall than anything else. He’s started 46 games over the last two years, but with better talent around him he might be this team’s sixth man.

A couple of 6-foot-9 freshmen should provide depth off the bench. Alex Reese was a top 100 recruit and is fairly skilled for that size, but probably won’t be asked to play much more than 10-15 minutes a night as a freshman. Galin Smith was a less-heralded recruit out of Mississippi and doesn’t figure to see big minutes in a crowded frontcourt.


Schedule

Date Opponent
11/10 vs. Memphis (Annapolis, MD)
11/14 Lipscomb
11/17 Alabama A&M
11/21 UT Arlington
11/24 vs. BYU (Brooklyn, NY)
11/25 vs. Minnesota (Brooklyn, NY)
11/29 Louisiana Tech
12/3 Central Florida
12/6 Rhode Island
12/9 at Arizona
12/19 vs. Mercer (Huntsville, AL)
12/22 vs. Texas (Birmingham, AL)
12/30 Texas A&M
1/2 at Vanderbilt
1/6 at Georgia
1/9 South Carolina
1/13 at LSU
1/17 Auburn
1/20 Mississippi State
1/23 at Ole Miss
1/27 Oklahoma
1/31 Missouri
2/3 at Florida
2/6 at Mississippi State
2/10 Tennessee
2/13 LSU
2/17 at Kentucky
2/21 at Auburn
2/24 Arkansas
2/27 Florida
3/3 at Texas A&M

For the third year in a row, Avery Johnson has put together a difficult nonconference schedule. The Tide will play eight games against teams rated in Ken Pomeroy’s preseason top 100, and four more against top 150 teams. The only real breather is a November game against Alabama A&M. Alabama will probably pick up at least a couple of losses against this slate, but that won’t be a reflection of anything about the team.

In SEC play, the Tide drew likely title contenders Florida and Texas A&M twice each — and while Auburn, Mississippi State, and LSU were among the SEC’s worst teams last year, there’s a decent chance that all three have improved since last season. The overall schedule will probably work in Alabama’s favor if they are on the NCAA Tournament bubble.


Outlook

Alabama was an elite team on one end of the floor in 2016-17, posting the country’s 10th-best defensive efficiency. Now the question is whether Avery Johnson can get the offense to match it.

The Tide’s offensive issues last year were acute; have they addressed the problems? It would seem that the additions of Collin Sexton and John Petty did just that, but as high as the ceiling is for both players, freshmen are gonna freshmen. Sexton has the talent to be an All-SEC player, but turnovers were a big problem for Alabama last year. Is a freshman point guard -- however talented — going to be the solution to a turnover-prone offense?

What’s more, both Sexton and Petty are better described as “scorers” than “shooters.” That’s a subtle, but important, difference. In addition to having turnover problems, Alabama couldn’t shoot last year, either, with the team’s main outside scoring threats (Riley Norris and Ar’Mond Davis) largely failing to get shots to fall. If that isn’t fixed, Alabama has no one to stretch the defense, and opponents will simply pack the lane to keep the Tide from scoring at the basket.

With all that said, if Johnson can keep Alabama’s defense at the level it was in 2016-17 — and with Donta Hall and Daniel Giddens in the paint, that’s a good bet — just improving the offense from bad to decent will take Alabama a long way. Assuming Sexton is eligible, Alabama should do just that, and that will likely make them an NCAA Tournament team for the first time since 2012. And there’s plenty of upside beyond that if everything falls into place.