By Chris DePew
November 10, 2016
In his first season as Alabama’s basketball coach, Avery Johnson did a lot of heavy lifting off the court to revive interest in a program gone stale and on the court to paper over a thin roster with glaring weaknesses and somehow pull out a respectable record and NIT berth.
By the time he begins his third season next November, Johnson could be well on his way to coaching a team that is an NCAA tournament regular, with veteran players experienced in doing things his way mixed with an elite freshman class.
But in between those two extremes, Johnson and the Crimson Tide must navigate a tricky 2016-17 season, which tips off Friday. What will make the difference between joining March Madness a year ahead of schedule and again struggling to escape the bottom third of the SEC is how well he can manage a roster that has a handful of intriguing pieces but doesn’t clearly project into a cohesive, well-rounded team.
Alabama has a logjam of combo forward and swingman types, but no certainty about who will step up and be a clear leader. It has a veteran center in Jimmie Taylor and a promising backup in Donta Hall, but neither one proved to be good fits in the breakneck offense Johnson prefers but ultimately had to abandon midway through last year. It has a couple of transfers with sweet shooting touches in Ar’Mond Davis and Corban Collins but doesn’t yet know who if anybody will become a go-to scorer like the departed Retin Obasohan. It has a promising point guard in Dazon Ingram, but it only got seven games from him before a broken foot ended last season and thus denied him the chance to experience the true grind of a conference campaign.
For Bama to build on last year’s success, Ingram will have to match and exceed the promise he showed in 2015. Technically still a redshirt freshman thanks to the timing of his injury, Ingram scored a respectable 7.7 points per game and flashed the ability to light it up even more than that. At the time of his injury, few were surprised that he led the team in assists (3.3), but his then team-high 5.9 rebounds per game turned many heads. He averaged nearly 3.5 turnovers per game though, and with so few games under his belt it may take a while longer to get that out of the system.
Collins was brought in to back up Ingram at the point, but may be too good for Johnson to resist pairing them together in the backcourt. A graduate transfer from Morehead State who blossomed after leaving LSU, he sank 57 3-pointers last year at better than a 42 percent clip and scored a team-high 11 points per game for the Eagles in 2015-16. He averaged 3 assists and only 1.2 turnovers per game. Davis is the other pure guard that figures to receive plenty of minutes. A Top-10 junior college recruit, he piled up 17.1 points per game and shot 45 percent from the field in two seasons at Southern Idaho. Brandon Austin and Avery Johnson Jr. provide depth but probably not much scoring punch.
Forward Shannon Hale started last year as a potential team cornerstone and ended it as Alabama’s biggest enigma. He missed five games with injuries and was reduced to a reserve role for 16 others for some still-unspecified mix of medical and attitude issues. His 10.8 points per game are the most for any returning Bama player. But his rebounding average has declined each year, and last year’s 2.9 boards per game stuck out as a sore point on a team that wavered between below average to downright terrible on the glass. If Johnson wasn’t afraid to bench him for inferior talents last season, he surely won’t stand in the way of Braxton Key if he seizes the moment. The Tide’s only true freshman, Key was a consensus four-star recruit from national powerhouse Oak Hill Academy who signed with Bama over Kansas, Texas and Vanderbilt. On a high school roster with six double-digit scorers, Key held his own with 13.1 points and a team-high 7.9 rebounds per game.
Riley Norris plugged in as everything from a shooting guard to a power forward when needed last year, and even with the upgraded talent on the floor the junior from Albertville may not be easily dislodged from the starting rotation. A streaky 3-point shooter best remembered for going 8-for-11 behind the arc to shock then-undefeated South Carolina, he earned his keep doing the dirty work on the glass his bigger teammates somehow couldn’t, averaging 5.3 rebounds to go along with a significant jump in scoring average to 7.5 points per game. Norris’ competition for playing time most likely comes from Memphis transfer Nick King, who was a solid contributor there but never took the expected next step into stardom. In two seasons with the Tigers, King averaged 5.9 points and four rebounds per game.
In the post, Taylor is a three-year starter that has teased fans for a while with flashes of potential but ultimately seems closer to his ceiling than his floor. He can score in short bursts and has the tools to be a solid rebounder but has never learned to control his body on the floor and is limited by chronic foul trouble. Despite being one of three players to start every game, he only stayed on the floor 21 minutes per contest as his scoring (5.2 points) and rebounding (4.7) actually declined slightly from his sophomore year. Hall had almost as many rebounds (4.3 per game) and was a shot-blocking phenomenon despite seeing far fewer minutes as a raw freshman from tiny Luverne High. He has the same bad habit of piling up fouls, but if he can mature and take advantage of his first offseason in a college weight room, he could push Taylor out of the starting role. Then again, Johnson may opt to try some smaller lineups as he looks to the future and tries again to implement his uptempo style after being forced to slow the game down to a crawl for last year’s depleted squad.
If Alabama’s outlook is a jumbled mess, that leaves it in good company in the SEC, where only three all-league players return from another disappointing season that ended in just three NCAA bids. Kentucky made its traditional wholesale roster changes but a star-studded freshman class is enough to make the Wildcats clear favorites again. Texas A&M was overlooked despite winning a share of the league title (and the tiebreaker with UK) and advancing to the Sweet 16 but the Aggies graduated a lot of scoring firepower. Georgia and Arkansas return the most proven talent but need to show consistency while Vandy has a few pieces left over from last year’s disappointing First Four squad but could be energized by new coach Bryce Drew. Florida is looking to rediscover its scoring mojo and could be a better bet than South Carolina or Alabama to break out of the middle of the pack. Ole Miss looks poised to take a step back and LSU several. Mississippi State and Auburn have promising young squads that may be a season away from shooting up the standings while Tennessee is in the middle of a grueling rebuilding process, with only lowly Missouri to cushion its fall to the conference basement.
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