By Chris DePew
Nov. 1, 2018
Alabama reclaimed its toehold in the world of college basketball prominence last season, returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012 and winning a game in the big dance for the first time in a dozen seasons.
The future looks reasonably bright as well. Plans have been released for the biggest transformation of Coleman Coliseum in its half-century of service, transforming a cavernous, outdated 15,000-seat space into a 10,000-seat show palace brimming with fan-friendly (and revenue-generating) amenities.
Head coach Avery Johnson got a raise and a contract extension over the summer, and is expected to sign a Top 25 recruiting class later this month that could shoot up the rankings if 5-star forward Trendon Watford from Mountain Brook decides to stay home next spring and sign with the Crimson Tide. The SEC shook off a decade-long torpor and put a record eight teams in the NCAA field last season, which only helps lift Bama’s national profile.
So why doesn’t this feel more like a program on the upswing?
Most prognosticators had Alabama properly pegged as a Round of 32 team, and certainly there was no shame in bowing out to eventual national champion Villanova. But even though the plane landed at its expected destination, the turbulence during the flight made a lot of people queasy.
The Tide brought in the best recruiting class in school history, led by five-star point guard Collin Sexton, but never seemed to get consistent chemistry. The two biggest stars from the 2016-17 squad, Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram, regressed significantly and Key wound up leaving for Virginia, the eighth scholarship player to transfer out since Johnson arrived in the spring of 2015.
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While Sexton solidified his standing as a NBA lottery pick, his fellow freshmen produced mixed results at best. John Petty dazzled with his 3-point shooting in some games and disappeared in too many others, especially once conference play arrived. Herbert Jones was an elite defender and has plenty of room to grow his game, but turnovers and poor shooting limited his effectiveness on offense. Alex Reese and Galin Smith were spot contributors at best that didn’t look physically prepared for the SEC.
It all added up to a maddeningly inconsistent team, one that went 3-1 against league co-champions Auburn and Tennessee but just 1-3 against the bottom four teams. A five-game losing streak at the end of the regular season very nearly pushed Alabama off the bubble, with only a coast-to-coast layup at the buzzer by Sexton rescuing the Tide in the SEC tournament and saving Johnson from entering this season firmly on the hot seat.
If Sexton was largely responsible for ending the Tide’s tournament drought, he could eventually be responsible for having last March’s run written out of the NCAA’s official record books. As part of an October federal trial of agents and shoe company representatives paying college players, documents claimed that Sexton was one of several players to receive under the table payments well before turning pro.
No one associated with the university as an employee or booster was mentioned in the documents, and Alabama officials firmly deny any involvement and say any eligibility concerns they had were resolved with Sexton’s suspension for the season opener last November. If nothing further comes out it seems unlikely that probation or scholarship reductions would be on the table, but vacating wins that Sexton played in is a real possibility.
But while the foundation of the program is not as solid as it looks from the outside, neither is it crumbling. Nine players with significant playing experience are back from last year’s roster and a 10th, Tevin Mack, practiced with the Crimson Tide all last season while redshirting after a transfer from Texas. What seemed like an unremarkable recruiting class got a surprise jolt when 5-star point guard Kira Lewis, expected to be a Top 25 recruit in the class of 2019, decided to skip his last season at Hazel Green and reclassify in time to enroll in August at the Capstone.
While a return to March Madness isn’t guaranteed, most projections have Bama finishing in the middle of the SEC pack, which would pencil out to being a bubble team at worst. Even if the Tide falters in a rugged league and takes a step back to the NIT, Johnson has accumulated enough goodwill to get another chance at starting a streak of NCAA runs next season. But for the sake of him and his program, it would be better if he doesn’t have to use that mulligan.
Follow Chris DePew on Twitter @TideFansChris