By Chris DePew
Nov. 8, 2017
The closer Alabama basketball gets to tipping off the season, the less clear it is what kind of team Avery Johnson will be able to put on the floor.
Expectations have been soaring in Tuscaloosa ever since Johnson signed a Top 5 recruiting class last fall. But moments before taking the floor in Monday’s official exhibition opener against Alabama-Huntsville, the athletic department said in a statement that the jewel of that class, point guard Collin Sexton, has not had his eligibility cleared by the NCAA as it continues to investigate him in connection with a FBI bribery probe that has rocked college basketball in recent weeks. Associate athletic director Kobie Baker resigned in late September when federal indictments against 10 other men implicated him in a scheme to direct Sexton’s family to an Atlanta-area financial advisor after declaring for next spring’s NBA draft.
Sexton has not been publicly accused of violating NCAA rules, but Alabama officials are unclear when – or if – he will cleared to play.
For however long he is out of the lineup, Sexton’s absence will drastically change the Crimson Tide’s outlook. But the sudden losses don’t stop there. Last year’s most valuable player, sophomore Braxton Key, had surgery to repair a torn meniscus Tuesday. No timetable was given for his recovery, but typically recovery time can be as short as four-to-six weeks or last up to three months. He joined Sexton, Riley Norris (hip) and Ar’Mond Davis (knee) in street clothes Monday night as the shell-shocked Tide fell behind 14-1 to Division II UAH before rallying for a 74-65 win.
In a worst-case scenario, with Sexton unavailable and Key not back until the middle of the conference schedule or slow to regain last year’s form, Alabama would go from a dark horse Sweet 16 contender to struggling to make the NCAA tournament bubble and keep pace in a dramatically improved SEC.
Bama has been counting on Sexton to be a dramatic upgrade at the point and allow Dazon Ingram to return to his more natural role as a shooting guard. Through Johnson’s first two seasons in Tuscaloosa, the Tide has been a plodding, inefficient mess on offense, consistently ranking among the country’s very worst teams in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. Given the chance, Sexton could quickly change that around. The tournament MVP at the FIBA U17 World Championships after leading the U.S. team in points and assists, Sexton found it harder to score on the All-American game circuit and in Alabama’s summer tour of Canada. But his ball handling and distribution skills are already highly polished and a natural fit for the uptempo style Johnson prefers but hasn’t had the athletes to effectively run.
Avery Johnson Jr. got the start at point guard in Sexton’s place against UAH, but look for Ingram to return to the point if Sexton is out for a while (or for good). A skilled ball handler and underrated rebounder, Ingram can go quiet for long stretches on offense when he isn’t looking for his own shot, only to take over once he gets exasperated at his teammates bogging down. Still just a sophomore after having to take a medical redshirt early in the 2015-16 season, he’s a good bet to come into his own as a more vocal leader on a young team. Johnson can provide valuable relief minutes and is an underappreciated defender, but only makes a third of his shots and isn’t a gifted playmaker. Still, he may see a lot of early action by default if the Crimson Tide opts to go with a four-guard lineup while Key and Norris are recovering.
Regardless of where Ingram winds up, Bama can expect a big boost at shooting guard. John Petty, a two-time Mr. Basketball from Huntsville, would have been fawned over as a savior in just about any other Crimson Tide recruiting class and he outshined even Sexton during the three-game Canadian summer swing when he averaged better than 16 points a game. The best pure shooting prospect to enter the Capstone in years, Petty excels in transition and can be deadly from 3-point range, but struggles to create his own shot off the dribble in half-court sets.
If Petty was overshadowed in Bama’s five-man recruiting class, Hale County’s Herb Jones was almost an afterthought. But the three star shooting guard has turned heads this preseason with his raw athleticism and tenacious defense. If Sexton misses significant time, Jones figures to benefit the most from increased playing time. Davis was going to struggle to get regular playing time even before an injury that has kept him out of practice most of the fall. Unless he rediscovers the 3-point shooting touch that made him a prized junior college transfer, don’t expect him to be a factor.
While the Plan B for the backcourt seems apparent, the shuffling lineup inside is a far murkier mystery.
Key’s injury is an equally harsh setback for the team and himself, as he has a chance to become an elite player but needs to put in work to fix some glaring holes in his game. The sophomore forward led Alabama with 12 points per game and is the leading returning rebounder (5.7). He also has above average ball handling skills and passing ability for his 6-foot-8 frame, but often tried to do too much with those abilities and averaged an unsightly 3.1 turnovers per game. Often forced to try to create offense on his own when his teammates were stagnant, he figures to benefit greatly from the talent upgrade the newcomers provide.
Norris, the last player remaining from the Anthony Grant era, has seemingly spent his entire college career defying expectations to force his way into the starting lineup. And with Key sidelined, the path is clear once again for the senior from Albertville once he can shake off his own injury trouble, possibly later this month. Unafraid to launch 3-pointers, he made a third of them last year and usually has a handful of games where he gets in the zone and blows past his nine points per game average. More predictable is his lockdown defense and ability to play as a small forward, power forward or shooting guard as the need arises.
Donta Hall made progress last year and eventually became the starting center, but it may require a bigger leap forward for him to hold off Ohio State transfer Daniel Giddens for that spot. Hall, a 6-foot-9 junior from Luverne, does his scoring damage on putback dunks and layups after attacking the glass and developed into one of the SEC’s most feared shot blockers. Bama needs him to stay out of foul trouble and continue improving his foul shooting (60 percent last year versus 42.9 percent as a freshman) so that he isn’t an offensive liability.
Giddens was a Top 50 high school player who produced modest stats during his only year at OSU before sitting out last year in Tuscaloosa. But he showed flashes of potential during the Canadian trip and took the team on his shoulders to put away UAH. The 6-foot-11 sophomore has a soft shooting touch away from the rim that could go a long way in loosening up the zone defenses that have long been a Crimson Tide nemesis. The big question is how he will hold up against players who can match his size and skill as opposed to picking on undersized post players from smaller schools.
In contrast to Bama’s three freshman guards, the frontcourt recruits are longer-term projects. Pelham’s Alex Reese was a borderline candidate to redshirt but the sudden depletion of the roster makes it more likely he’ll play this season. Galin Smith might crack the lineup for the same reason, but he is the rawest freshman and ideally could use a year off to add muscle to his 6-foot-9 frame before doing battle in the paint.
A challenging non-conference schedule built to boost Alabama’s NCAA tournament resume could quickly become an albatross if the Crimson Tide can’t get its missing players back on the floor in time. A Dec. 9 trip to No. 3 Arizona and a showdown in Brooklyn with No. 15 Minnesota on (ouch) Iron Bowl Saturday are the highlights, but a pair of Big XII teams expecting bounceback seasons and tournament bids will visit the state this year. Texas will play Dec. 22 in the Tide’s annual Birmingham visit while Oklahoma visits Coleman Coliseum Jan. 23 in the SEC/Big XII Challenge. Atlantic 10 preseason favorite Rhode Island might be better than either the Horns or Sooners, and the Rams come to Tuscaloosa Dec. 6.
After years of being a running joke in college basketball, the SEC is on track for its best season in at least a decade and is gunning for seven tournament bids. While No. 5 Kentucky is the reflexive league favorite, fellow Elite 8 team Florida has the experienced talent to bring home the crown instead, beginning with scoring machine KeVaughn Allen. Expect the No. 8 Gators to edge out the Wildcats, who have their usual top-flight recruiting class but no sure-fire NBA lottery prospect. The Wildcats have early injury problems of their own and may shift from being a guard-oriented team to relying on the frontcourt to crash the glass and wear opponents down.
No. 25 Texas A&M got a tremendous break when 6-11 forward Robert Williams decided to return for his sophomore season and continue terrorizing opposing rebounders across the league. The Aggies were done in by poor point guard play last season, but freshman J.J. Caldwell should fix that after being ineligible last year. Vanderbilt loses Luke Kornet but returns four other starters off last year’s NCAA squad. Missouri brought Cuonzo Martin back to coach in the SEC, which was enough to attract the nation’s top recruit in Michael Porter Jr. and fill out a monster class around him in short order. The Tigers are legitimate NCAA contenders a season after losing 24 games.
Arkansas returns a half-dozen seniors from last year’s NCAA squad and will be counting on freshman star Daniel Gafford to fill Moses Kingsley’s shoes. If Georgia and Ole Miss could combine squads they might be a Sweet 16 team, but the Bulldogs don’t have an adequate replacement for do-everything guard J.J. Frazier and the Rebels have too many holes in the frontcourt. Mississippi State is loaded with talented sophomores and freshmen but Ben Howland’s results on the floor haven’t yet matched the recruiting hype.
Auburn is the SEC’s biggest mystery after being rocked by the FBI investigation that has Sexton in limbo. Assistant coach Chuck Person was fired after being indicted as a key figure in the scheme and Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy are both currently ineligible pending NCAA investigation. If both come back, the Tigers are good enough to contend for March Madness. If they’re gone for good, Bruce Pearl could struggle to save his team from a bottom-four finish and himself from the unemployment line.
South Carolina lost three double-digit scorers from last year’s Final Four team, including the invaluable Sindarius Thornwell. If the Gamecocks avoid a giant step back, it will be because Chris Silva finally makes the long-awaited leap from good player to superstar. Tennessee and LSU don’t have the talent to keep up with the rest of the SEC, although the Tigers got a big coaching upgrade after bringing in VCU’s Will Wade.
Follow Chris DePew on Twitter @TideFansChris