How Did We Get Here?
For some reason, Anthony Grant got a sixth year.
Grant made the NCAA Tournament just once in five years -- extending a rough stretch for a program that went to the tournament 17 times between 1982 and 2006. And now, after his sixth year (when predictably the Tide failed to make the tournament), Grant is gone as Alabama has made the tournament just once in the last nine years. This certainly wasn't a case of an athletic department having unrealistic expectations for its basketball program: Wimp Sanderson turned Alabama into a consistent winner, and while Mark Gottfried was more up and down, his best seasons showed that this can be one of the SEC's top programs.
If there was an argument for keeping Grant around for 2014-15, I'd love to hear it. Aside from the fact that Alabama again failed to make the tournament (as the 2011 recruiting class, ranked #9 in the country by 247Sports, finished its eligibility having made one NCAA Tournament and zero tournament wins), Grant's recruiting suffered as a result of the fact that everybody knew he was a lame duck. Alabama's 2015 recruiting class ranked #48 in the country, and it only even got that high because of Kobie Eubanks, who became new coach Avery Johnson's first recruit (and ultimately didn't qualify academically). Grant managed to recruit well, for the most part, but leaving him to try to recruit players who might or might not actually play for him was a strange decision.
Which is kind of important, because about that 2011 recruiting class? Levi Randolph, after underachieving for his first three years under Grant, finally lived up to his recruiting rankings as a senior. Randolph managed to finish third in the SEC in Win Shares in 2014-15 -- behind only #1 draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns and SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis -- and the fact that he did so while playing for a team significantly worse than Towns' Kentucky or Portis's Arkansas... well, that says quite a bit about Randolph's teammates, doesn't it? Aside from Randolph, Alabama is losing Rodney Cooper (their second-best player) and Ricky Tarrant, the latter of whom transferred to Memphis after Grant was fired. Those were Alabama's three best players in 2014-15, and while the Tide does return 58 percent of their minutes from last season, that's more a reflection of the fact that they basically return all of their role players. That's good and bad -- good that Avery Johnson doesn't face a complete overhaul in his first season, but bad that (at least last year) the players surrounding Randolph, Cooper, and Tarrant were not all that good.
Obviously with the coaching change and the roster turnover, trying to glean anything out of Alabama's tendencies last season is a rather pointless exercise. You can sort of get a sense for why Grant got fired when you notice that Alabama led the SEC in three-point attempts while ranking 11th in three-point percentage... and 2nd on two-point percentage. Of course, much of that had to do with the incredibly efficient Randolph and the only slightly less efficient Cooper and Tarrant, none of whom will be suiting up for the team this season.
Avery Johnson comes aboard after Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall turned down an offer that would have essentially made him the Governor of Alabama (and possibly with an even higher paycheck), and for a second option Johnson is really, really good. After all, while he has never been a college coach before (even as an assistant), being able to tell recruits that you won an NBA championship as a player, reached the NBA Finals as a coach and were once the NBA Coach of the Year seem like pretty strong selling points on the recruiting trail. Johnson already scored a commitment from five-star recruit Terrance Ferguson for the 2016 class, and more are almost certain to come. In the long term, I think Johnson is a home run hire. But as for 2015-16? With only ten scholarship players available, and with a lot of inexperience on the roster, it's hard to see the Tide rolling this season.
|Player||Year||Height||Weight||247 Rating||247 Rank||MPG||PPG||RPG||APG||BPG||SPG||WS||Notes|
|Devin Mitchell||5.4||0.6||0.2||0.3||0.1||0.2||-0.2||transfer/Georgia State|
|Arthur Edwards||Sr.||6'5"||210||12.0||3.9||2.0||0.8||0.2||0.5||0.3||2014-15 (New Mexico)|
|Justin Coleman||Soph.||5'10"||160||0.9817||4* (#9 PG)||18.1||4.3||1.1||1.4||0.0||0.6||0.3|
|Dazon Ingram||Fr.||6'5"||185||0.8576||3* (#61 SG)|
|Brandon Austin||Fr.||6'5"||180||0.8722||3* (#38 SF)|
|Avery Johnson Jr.||Soph.||5'11"||182||0.8163||3* (#69 PG)||sitting out 2015-16|
Grant deployed a lot of three-guard looks last year, for rather obvious reasons: his three best players were all guards. That doesn't seem to be the case this year.
Retin Obasohan is one of two seniors on the roster, and the only one who's been in the program prior to this season. As such, he's likely to take on a leadership role for this team. At the same time, Obasohan seems unlikely to be a star. He is what he is, a solid perimeter defender and a decent driver, but also a rather poor shooter - while he shot 38.6 percent on admittedly limited three-point attempts last season, that's countered by being a career 66.5 percent shooter at the foul line, which is probably a better indicator of his true shooting ability. Obasohan is a nice player to have around, but he's not the kind of player you want to build an offense around. Even Grant seemed hesitant to have Obasohan running the offense for extended stretches.
Part of the reason for that was the presence of Justin Coleman, a highly-touted recruit who struggled to adjust to the college game, and his struggles essentially forced Grant to rely on Obasohan after Tarrant got injured. Coleman did show flashes of potential as a freshman, like a 22-point performance (with two assists and three steals) at Arkansas in January... but that represented Coleman's only double-figure scoring night in SEC play. That also came on a 5-7 performance from three, for a guy who shot 23.3 percent from beyond the stripe on the season. That doesn't say anything about Coleman's potential as a creator for teammates, of course, and perhaps his 75 percent shooting from the free throw stripe says more about his true shooting ability than all those bricks. His new coach is probably better equipped than anybody to teach an undersized point guard how to play at a high level, though, and he did manage to average 1.4 assists last year. He clearly has a long way to go, but there's a reason he was rated as a top point guard prospect coming out of high school, so we'll wait and see here.
So the question is, well, if Obasohan and Coleman are creators, who exactly are they creating for? Alabama has a pair of freshmen to compete for playing time on the wing in Dazon Ingram and Brandon Austin.
Ingram originally signed in November before briefly decommitting after Grant's firing; during this time he drew some interest (though not an offer) from Kentucky. There's probably something you can read into that, but I can't decide if it's that Ingram is perhaps better than the recruiting rankings suggest or that Calipari was very concerned about his backcourt depth. Ingram, who was Alabama's 7A player of the year, is more slasher than shooter and some describe him as a point guard. Combo guard is probably a better description, with the ability to play the point but probably a more natural fit on the wing.
Austin is another option on the wing, and is more of a pure shooting guard than combo guard, with a good outside shot and decent rim attack. Austin was the 6A state tournament MVP in Alabama.
Emergency depth will be provided by Arthur Edwards and Lawson Schaffer. Edwards, one of two seniors on the roster, is a grad transfer who scored 100 points in two years at New Mexico. Schaffer, a preferred walk-on who was the 6A player of the year in Alabama, is probably better than your average walk-on but still a limited player. Avery Johnson Jr. is sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules and will have three years of eligibility remaining.
|Player||Year||Height||Weight||247 Rating||247 Rank||MPG||PPG||RPG||APG||BPG||SPG||WS||Notes|
|Jimmie Taylor||Jr.||6'10"||240||0.9718||4* (#7 C)||23.6||5.5||4.9||0.5||1.7||0.3||2.2|
|Shannon Hale||Jr.||6'8"||226||0.9605||4* (#18 PF)||19.4||8.2||3.2||1.1||0.5||0.8||1.4|
|Riley Norris||Soph.||6'7"||207||0.9292||4* (#25 SF)||20.9||4.7||4.2||0.6||0.2||0.6||1.5|
|Donta Hall||Fr.||6'10"||205||0.9013||3* (#35 PF)|
|Nick King||Jr.||6'7"||225||0.9837||4* (#11 SF)||sitting out 2015-16|
Alabama's frontcourt has some experience, but not a ton of depth. Still, it could wind up being a strength -- which honestly says more about the unsettled backcourt than anything else.
Shannon Hale is Alabama's leading returning scorer from last season. Hale is a nice option at 6'8" who can stretch the defense by shooting the occasional three-pointer (34 percent in SEC play.) He's also the kind of player who is fine as a second or third option, but your offense has issues if he's the first option - and depending on how the backcourt situation works out, Hale might become the first option by default. Hale showed some promise as a freshman but seemed to regress as a sophomore; whether that's something Johnson can fix remains to be seen. Turnovers (1.9 per game in 19 minutes a night) sapped his efficiency as well.
Riley Norris can also stretch defenses at 6'7" and while he struggled with his shot last season (31 percent from three), the potential is there, and he's already a solid defender and rebounder. Norris started playing big minutes late in the season - though at least some of that had to do with Hale getting injured - but wasn't a particularly efficient offensive player last season. Still, Norris was a freshman last year and it isn't unheard of for freshmen to need a year to transition to the college game.
That said, pulling opposing bigs away from the basket is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Jimmie Taylor and Michael Kessens are Alabama's holdovers on the low block, and neither is a player whom opposing defenses had to concern themselves with much last year. Taylor managed to shoot 59.3 percent from the floor last season - and 70.4 percent in SEC play! - but that was on around 3 field goal attempts per night. And more free throw attempts than field goal attempts; opponents were more than happy to put his 47.7 percent free throw shooting at the line. That about sums up Taylor's offensive game: good at converting chip shots; not so good at anything else. But at least he's not one of those bigs who steps out and shoots 18-footers for no real reason, and there's something to be said for that. There's also something to be said for his presence at the defensive end, where he averaged 1.7 blocks per game in about 23 minutes a night. That's pretty impressive.
Kessens is slightly more polished on the offensive end than Taylor, which isn't really saying much, and was also Alabama's leading rebounder last season in spite of playing 21 minutes a night. On the other hand, Kessens tended to be turnover-prone (1.9 turnovers per game in SEC play, a high number for a big man who's playing half the time) and foul-prone (5.5 fouls per 40 minutes.)
At 6'10" and 205 pounds, Donta Hall would be a candidate to redshirt and spend a year in the weight room at some programs. But with Taylor and especially Kessens having foul trouble from time to time, Johnson will probably want him available as an emergency big. Alabama's 2A player of the year as a senior, Hall is very raw offensively -- it's a big adjustment from 2A high school basketball to the SEC -- but can contribute right away on the defensive end (he allegedly averaged 12 blocks a game as a high school senior.) At this point Hall is probably mostly a shot blocker, but that's actually a pretty useful skill to have and gives Johnson another player with length to throw at opposing offenses.
Nick King, a former four-star recruit who transferred from Memphis, is sitting out this season and will have two years of eligibility left.
|11/26||vs. Xavier (Orlando, FL)|
|11/27||AdvoCare Invitational (Orlando, FL)|
|11/29||AdvoCare Invitational (Orlando, FL)|
|12/4||at Southern Miss|
|12/21||vs. Oregon (Birmingham, AL)|
|1/30||at South Carolina|
|2/2||at Mississippi State|
While this looks like a rebuilding year, Avery Johnson didn't shy away from a tough non-conference schedule. There are road trips to Dayton and Clemson, and also a road trip to Southern Miss -- the Golden Eagles aren't very good, but it is on the road. There's a "neutral-court" game (in Birmingham) against Oregon, and UL-Lafayette won 22 games last season. Alabama will see Xavier in the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando, which actually has a pretty stacked field, with Wichita State or USC awaiting in the second game and Notre Dame, Iowa, and Dayton all on the opposite side of the bracket. So that's potentially as many as six or seven games in November and December that even a decent team can't count as automatic wins -- never mind a team that could finish near the bottom of the SEC.
The SEC schedule-makers didn't cut the Tide a lot of breaks, either. Kentucky and LSU -- possibly the top two teams in the league -- are on the schedule twice each, along with two games apiece against likely improved squads from Auburn, Mississippi State, and South Carolina. In short, an unusually difficult schedule means that Alabama's record could end up being pretty awful if this is a rebuilding year. (Of course, if Alabama is somehow in the NCAA Tournament conversation, SOS will not be an issue.)
Avery Johnson will not be judged on wins and losses in his first year, and shouldn't be. After all, there's a reason that Anthony Grant got fired -- while there is some potential on this roster, the sophomores and juniors haven't really ever lived up to it. If they had, Grant would still be coaching here.
It is easy to see how Alabama could have a pretty good defense this year. Taylor, Kessens, and Hall provide plenty of bodies to do the dirty work of rebounding and challenging shots -- but, um, where is the scoring going to come from? Hale and Norris have potential but need more consistency; Ingram and Austin are freshmen, and the results from plugging in non-elite freshmen are very mixed. There is a lot to be said for a player like Randolph, who was held to single digits just four times last season. This year, Alabama has no idea who the points are going to come from.
It's at least possible to look at the roster and conclude that Avery Johnson can get enough out of this team to make a push toward .500 in the SEC. I would be surprised if they do anything more than that -- more surprised, in fact, than I would be if this team finishes 14th.