How Did We Get Here?
Alabama’s 2017-18 season felt like it should have been better than that, but it was still fine. The Tide made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 — and won a NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2006. That the season ended in the second round, with a blowout loss to eventual national champion Villanova, felt a little disappointing for a team that was hyped as a preseason Top 25 team. Still, it’s hard to argue that getting out of the rut that the program had been in since the tail end of Mark Gottfried’s tenure in Tuscaloosa was a negative.
Entering 2018-19, everybody’s focused on what Alabama is losing. Collin Sexton, who averaged 19.2 ppg in his lone season in Tuscaloosa, is currently getting his feet wet for the post-LeBron Cleveland Cavaliers. Braxton Key, the team’s leading scorer in 2016-17, transferred to Virginia.
On the other hand, Alabama returns 68.9 percent of its possession-minutes from 2017-18. Sexton and Key were significant losses, but they’re also the only losses. There’s no single, superstar player on this team, but Alabama’s roster is littered with former four-star recruits. They have a star transfer now eligible after sitting out last year, and Riley Norris is back for a fifth year after being granted a medical hardship. Alabama had the SEC’s best defense in conference play last season, and basically all of the players who contributed to that are returning.
This team probably won’t generate as much excitement as last year’s team, and I’m not about to argue that Collin Sexton is not a significant loss. But weirdly, it’s not difficult to see how the 2018-19 edition of Alabama basketball could actually end up being better than last year’s team.
To say that 6’5” sophomore John Petty was streaky in 2017-18 would be an understatement. As a freshman, Petty attempted 313 shots — and 242 of them came from beyond the arc. Predictably, the results were very hot and cold. Petty shot 8-of-13 from beyond the arc in a January win over Auburn; that was sandwiched between 2-for-7 performances. He shot 5-of-9 from three in an SEC Tournament loss to Kentucky, and 6-of-8 in the first-round win over Virginia Tech… then, he went 1-for-5 in the season-ending loss to Villanova. For the season, he shot 37.2 percent from three, which is fine, but he was just as likely to shoot Alabama out of the game as he was to go off. With more consistency, Petty could be a star.
Alongside Petty, Dazon Ingram, a 6’5” junior, came in as a point guard but has developed into more of a combo guard. His main skill is creating contact and getting to the foul line: last season, he attempted 177 free throws, though he was fairly average at the line (68.9 percent.) Alabama also now has the services of Tevin Mack, a 6’6” transfer from Texas. Mack averaged 14.8 ppg as a sophomore in 2016-17 and also shot 39.1 percent from three-point range and could take a starting spot from either Ingram or Petty. Having Mack and Petty on the floor would give Alabama two potentially dangerous shooters on the wings.
The main question in the backcourt is at point guard, where Sexton leaves a huge hole. Ingram is one option; another option is Avery Johnson Jr., the coach’s son. The younger Johnson averaged 13.9 minutes per game with 4.3 points and 0.8 assists per game. An intriguing option is 6’3” freshman Kira Lewis Jr. Lewis, who reclassified from the 2019 class, is the youngest player in Division I — he won’t turn 18 until after the season! — and rated as a four-star recruit and one of the top point guard recruits in the country.
6’4” freshman Diante Wood, an in-state product from Anniston, comes in as a three-star recruit and should provide depth.
With Braxton Key gone, Alabama doesn’t have a ton of offensive threats up front — but what it does have are defensive stalwarts. That starts with Donta Hall. The 6’9” senior has blocked 171 shots in his career, and as a junior he started to show signs of an offensive game, at least close to the basket. Hall was Alabama’s second-leading scorer at 10.6 ppg and shot an SEC-best 72.6 percent from the floor (all inside the arc.) He’s a refreshing example of a player who knows who he is: a shot blocker and rebounder who can score around the basket, and doesn’t really even try to take low-percentage shots. And behind him, Alabama has Daniel Giddens, a 6’11” junior who blocked 35 shots in spite of averaging just 13.3 minutes per game.
On the wing, 6’7” sophomore Herb Jones also emerged as a defensive stopper in 2017-18 — on the season, he had 22 blocks and 44 steals. The latter number ranked 7th in the SEC in spite of only averaging 21.2 minutes per game. Offense was another matter: Jones shot 44 percent on twos, 26.9 percent on threes, and 50 percent at the foul line, and he also committed 56 turnovers in spite of not really being a primary ball-handler. But there was a reason why a guy with that raw of an offensive game played so many minutes.
Alabama lost Riley Norris for the season around New Year’s, but the 6’7” Norris was granted a fifth year of eligibility. As a junior, Norris averaged 9.0 ppg and 3.8 rpg, and he’s a 34.6 percent three-point shooter for his career. The Tide have some more big bodies off the bench in 6’9” sophomores Alex Reese and Galin Smith, and 6’9” freshman Javian Davis-Fleming. That should give Avery Johnson plenty of guys to rotate in should any of the starters get in foul trouble.
|12/18||vs. Liberty (Huntsville, AL)|
|12/30||at Stephen F. Austin|
|2/12||at Mississippi State|
|2/19||at Texas A&M|
|2/26||at South Carolina|
Alabama’s nonconference schedule has a handful of big names to go along with some respectable mid-major programs. The Tide will host Arizona and Penn State (which should be decent), and Murray State or Georgia State are capable of pulling an upset. They travel to UCF, which is getting talked about as a fringe Top 25 team, and somebody also decided it was a good idea to travel to Stephen F. Austin. The Tide draw Baylor in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, and the Charleston Classic has Purdue, Wichita State, and Davidson.
In SEC play, Alabama draws Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt twice. Four of those could be NCAA Tournament teams, though Texas A&M appears to be rebuilding.
Alabama got a lot of hype going into 2017-18 and arguably didn’t live up to it: though they made the NCAA Tournament, they finished the season with a 20-16 record and ranked 57th in KenPom.
This season is coming in with considerably less hype, but a look at Alabama’s roster suggests that they might actually end up being a better team. In the backcourt, Alabama returns two fairly talented guards in Petty and Ingram, and they also add a very accomplished transfer in Mack and a young point guard with intriguing upside in Lewis. The frontcourt doesn’t have a ton of offensive threats, just two of the SEC’s best rim protectors in Hall and Giddens, and Herb Jones, who could become one of the SEC’s best defensive stoppers on the wing.
Basically, it seems fairly likely that Alabama will once again be one of the best defensive teams in the conference (and the country), which gives them a lot of margin for error on the other end of the floor. Last season, Alabama’s defense was good enough to drag a team with few offensive threats aside from Sexton — in spite of Sexton’s presence, Alabama was 12th in the SEC in offensive efficiency — just across the finish line and into the NCAA Tournament. Improved offensive performances from Petty and Ingram, plus the addition of Mack, could give the Tide a better offense than they had last year. And that should be good enough for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament and a top-half finish in the SEC.