How Did We Get Here?
In the end, Alabama paid a lot of money to Avery Johnson to deliver basically the same results that were not good enough under Anthony Grant.
In Grant’s six seasons, Alabama went 54-48 in the SEC and made the NCAA Tournament once. Their final KenPom rankings in those six years: 63, 51, 27, 64, 86, 55. In Johnson’s four seasons, the SEC record was 34-38 (the SEC had improved across the board in the meantime) and the Tide made the NCAA Tournament once. Their final KenPom rankings in those four years: 86, 56, 57, 64. Even more damning for Johnson, though, was the way that the Tide achieved those results: by playing a slow, boring brand of basketball that emphasized defense but couldn’t put points on the scoreboard. And much like Grant, recruiting wasn’t much of an issue: Johnson brought in the #8 recruiting class in the 247 Sports composite in 2017, and followed that up with the #24 class in 2018.
Once one of the SEC’s most reliable programs outside of Kentucky, Alabama has had a lost decade, and inept offenses have mostly been to blame. Under Mark Gottfried, Alabama finished in the top 50 in offensive efficiency for seven straight years from 2001 to 2007, and made the NCAA Tournament five times. Since 2007, Alabama hasn’t finished in the top 50 in offensive efficiency a single time, and they’ve made the NCAA Tournament just twice – and haven’t gotten out of the first weekend since 2004. Alabama was once a fixture in the second weekend, making the Sweet 16 six times between 1982 and 1991, but since Wimp Sanderson left town, the 2004 Elite Eight run is the only time they’ve gotten beyond that.
The good news is that at the very least, the days of slow, boring basketball are probably at an end. After Johnson was let go (a more mutual decision than was commonly assumed; from all appearances, Avery Johnson wanted to continue being Alabama’s basketball coach about as much as Alabama wanted Avery Johnson to continue being its basketball coach), Alabama hired Nate Oats. In four years as the head coach at Buffalo, Oats’s teams never ranked lower than 37th in adjusted tempo, and his last two Buffalo teams ranked 34th and 21st in adjusted offensive efficiency. Oh yeah, and he made the NCAA Tournament three times in four years, and won a game in each of the last two tournaments. Basically, Alabama would probably be fine if he just did what he did at Buffalo. Only now, at least in theory, he gets to do it with better talent. This sounds like an obvious hire, and yet at least one college basketball talking head called it an “outside the box” hire, which is one of the funniest admissions of a long-term trend away from promoting successful mid-major head coaches and toward more and more retread hires in the power conferences.
That Alabama returns 54.5 percent of its possession-minutes from last season might understate just what they’re losing. Donta Hall was the team’s defensive stopper, with 227 blocks in his four-year career, and he also had enough of an offensive game to be a reliable presence on the low block. Tevin Mack and Dazon Ingram were starters, and Riley Norris was the team’s sixth man.
|Kira Lewis Jr.||31.6||13.5||2.6||2.9||0.8||0.3|
With that said, in Kira Lewis Jr., John Petty, and Herb Jones, Alabama returns a pretty solid core, at least on the perimeter.
Lewis was the rare player who was prevented from leaving after his freshman year because he didn’t meet the age requirement. Lewis didn’t turn 18 until after the season was over, and was the youngest player in Division I who actually appeared in a game. Under those circumstances, his performance was strong, and should only get better.
If you somehow combined John Petty and Herb Jones, you’d have a really good player; instead, Alabama had one or the other on the floor. Petty was an extremely streaky shooter, for lack of a better word, but the good news was that in SEC play he was mostly hot, shooting 37.9 percent from three-point range. Jones is one of the best perimeter defenders in the SEC, but to say that his offensive game is a work in progress is an understatement: last season, he shot 44 percent on two-pointers and 50 percent at the foul line while committing two turnovers a game. Combine Petty’s offense with Jones’ defense, and you’d have a superstar; combine Petty’s defense with Jones’ offense, and you’d be lucky to get a scholarship.
Alex Reese and Galin Smith are big bodies (both are 6’9”) who haven’t played a ton in two years at Alabama. They’re the extent of Alabama’s experience in the interior.
|Juwan Gary||6'5"||220||#93 in 247 Sports composite|
|Jaylen Forbes||6'4"||176||#104 in 247 Sports composite|
|Jaden Shackelford||6'3"||185||#107 in 247 Sports composite|
|Raymond Hawkins||6'9"||240||#190 in 247 Sports composite|
|James Rojas||6'8"||215||#4 (JC) in 247 Sports composite|
|Javian Davis-Fleming||6'9"||268||#289 in 247 Sports composite (2018)|
|James Bolden||6'0"||170||transfer/West Virginia|
So, the bad news here is that two of Alabama’s newcomers, and possibly three, won’t play in 2019-20. Juwan Gary, the team’s top recruit, and James Rojas, one of the top JUCO transfers in the country, have both been ruled out for the season with injuries. And Alabama is still waiting to hear back from the NCAA on former five-star recruit Jahvon Quinerly’s waiver request; Quinerly was a disappointment in his one year at Villanova but still has talent.
That leaves Alabama with five newcomers who will definitely play for them in 2019-20, but three of those are guards — which isn’t really the area of need here. Javian Davis-Fleming is a big man who redshirted last year, and Raymond Hawkins was a late addition to the recruiting class. James “Beetle” Bolden did okay as West Virginia’s point guard (12.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.5 apg, 2.2 turnovers) but is probably not the first option at the point as long as Kira Lewis is healthy. Jaden Shackelford and Jaylen Forbes are well-regarded as recruits but may find it difficult to supplant Petty and Jones.
|11/15||at Rhode Island|
|11/27||vs. North Carolina (Battle 4 Atlantis)|
|11/28||Battle 4 Atlantis|
|11/29||Battle 4 Atlantis|
|12/6||Stephen F. Austin|
|12/14||at Penn State|
|12/21||Belmont (Huntsville, AL)|
|2/22||at Ole Miss|
|2/25||at Mississippi State|
Somehow, Alabama got invited to the Battle 4 Atlantis; the eight-team Thanksgiving week tournament in the Bahamas tends to be one of the more popular exempt tournaments, and the field is typically loaded. Alabama opens that tournament against North Carolina, and there is a decent chance the Tide will be fighting Southern Miss in the seventh-place game of that event.
Even aside from that, though, Alabama’s nonconference schedule looks more like that of a team with an eye on impressing the NCAA Tournament selection committee than that of a rebuilding team. I always say you can tell quite a bit about what a coach thinks about his team by what kind of nonconference schedule he draws up. (For the reverse of this, see Vanderbilt’s nonconference schedule.) There are road trips to Rhode Island and Penn State (and, weirdly, what technically counts as a road game against Samford in Birmingham.) They’ll also face Belmont in Huntsville – and you’ll recall that Huntsville is actually closer to Nashville than it is to Tuscaloosa. They draw Kansas State in the Big 12/SEC Challenge in January, and even teams like Furman and Stephen F. Austin aren’t pushovers. This is a nonconference schedule with few gimmes, and if things aren’t clicking early, Alabama’s record at the end of December could be ugly.
In SEC play, Alabama draws Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri, and Vanderbilt twice. The first three of those are always on the schedule twice, and this season, that’s a particularly rough group; on the other hand, drawing Vanderbilt twice is, well, we all saw Vanderbilt’s basketball team last year.
I have Alabama picked 12th in the SEC, largely on the assumption that Jahvon Quinerly won’t play — though I’m not sure that my assessment of the Tide would change too much either way. The guard play should be at least pretty good; the problem is that Alabama will badly miss Donta Hall’s presence on the defensive end, and I’m just not sure that any of the big men on the roster — either the incumbents or the newcomers — are really capable of replacing his production.
I like the Nate Oats hire in the long term, but as for 2019-20, this has all the hallmarks of a weird transition year from a plodding, defensive-oriented style to more of an up-tempo style. If things really don’t click, Alabama’s season could effectively be over by New Year’s; but if somebody can step up inside, the Tide could challenge for a NCAA Tournament bid. (Again, the weird thing about the SEC this year is that I can legitimately see the team I have picked 12th challenging for the tournament.)