clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Alabama plays a wild card to turn the Tide on a stagnant program

Previewing the #5 team in the SEC, the Alabama Crimson Tide.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Mississippi vs Alabama Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama, as a basketball program, has been stuck in the mud now for a while. Since the 2006 season, there have been just three NCAA tournaments, no seasons with single digit losses, and just one season where they didn’t finish between 51 - 100 in KenPom.

Almost all of those years, through Mark Gottfried, Anthony Grant, and Avery Johnson, it felt like Alabama was likely to land in the low 60s in KenPom, look really good some nights, terrible on others, be decent defensively, but never break through.

All this despite the fact the Tide always recruited well. It’s like the program settled into perennial underachievement. So instead of playing the same record for the 14th straight season, Alabama found an out. They found an amicable way to move on from the Avery Johnson era after four mediocre seasons, and swung for the fences with an really out of the box hire for the Tide.


Previous SEC Previews

Alabama Preview

#5 Alabama Crimson Tide

Last Season: 18 - 16 (8 - 10 in conference) #64 kenpom

My Prediction: 21 - 10 (11-7, 5th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 9.0 - 9.0 (7th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 6th in conference

KenPom Projection: 14 - 15 (8-10 in conference) no. 70

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Nate Oats | first season 0 - 0

When Alabama swings for the fences, you’d expect the big names of College Basketball. After all, thanks to Nick Saban and Alabama football, they practically print money in Tuscaloosa. So while many expected Gregg Marshall, Thad Matta, or Chris Beard... Alabama called their shot and hired a former high school basketball coach turned rising collegiate coaching star in Nate Oats. Alabama went out of the box in a big way, and it could really pay off.

Oats spent the last four seasons turning Buffalo into a MAC powerhouse, including an upset of the Arizona Wildcats two years ago, and two NCAA wins overall the last two years. If you were keeping track, that’s as many NCAA wins as Alabama has had in the aforementioned 14 years.

Oats will try to bring a higher octane offense and play at a faster pace than his predecessors, and the brass there will hope it’s the cure to what’s been ailing a stagnant program.

Seat Temp: COLD

alabama 10 year look 2019

Hiring Oats means Alabama is looking for the kind of reset for the program which Johnson didn’t provide. Instead of an an advanced NBA playbook, they got a version of Anthony Grant, who coached up solid defenses but left the offense questionable. With the money floating around the program thanks to football and easy access to talent — and the ability to land that talent — there’s no reason Alabama can’t be a more regular visitor to the NCAA tournament. Following Nate Oats’ trajectory, they might have the right guy.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Donta Hall graduation 34 66.81% 14.54% 22.34% 13.36%
Tevin Mack transfer 34 51.21% 12.50% 9.89% 10.24%
Dazon Ingram transfer 32 52.01% 9.23% 9.67% 10.40%
Riley Norris graduation 26 37.95% 6.70% 7.62% 7.59%
Daniel Giddens transfer 14 8.42% 1.10% 0.44% 1.68%
Avery Johnson Jr graduation 32 22.71% 2.33% 1.59% 4.54%
Lawson Schaeffer* graduation 9 1.10% 0.00% -0.28% 0.22%
48.04% 46.40% 51.27% 48.03%

Avery Johnson’s ability to land well-regarded talent was never a problem. Putting everything together and make things work, on the other hand, was a far greater challenge. Donta Hall was a pretty underrated recruit who ended up being one of the best bigs in the SEC. He was solid defensively and a good finisher around the rim in pick and rolls and cuts, but wasn’t exactly a guy you wanted to throw it to on the block. Texas transfer Tevin Mack never quite found his footing or any consistency offensively and was a relative non-factor most nights.

Dazon Ingram took his graduate year and transferred to UCF. Ingram was an impact player as a freshman, but never quite developed his outside shooting and lost minutes at lead guard each of the last two years. Daniel Giddens is another unrealized talent, and the former 5-star post transferred to Vermont to finish up his eligibility. And Riley Norris was always an underrated piece. He was efficient and a good shooter, but a guy who was fine just going out and performing his job. Avery Johnson, Jr was a decent backup point guard, but an 86 Offensive Rating shouldn’t be too difficult to replace.

AND, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Kira Lewis, Jr. SO PG 34 78.75% 18.71% 55.40% 17.43%
John Petty, Jr. JR WING 34 71.87% 14.22% 54.50% 13.61%
Herbert Jones JR CF 34 52.67% 8.82% 46.30% 7.81%
Alex Reese JR POST 28 27.25% 7.19% 54.80% 6.94%
Galin Smith JR POST 30 28.72% 4.66% 51.90% 3.01%
Tyler Barnes JR POST 4 0.29% 0.00% 0.00% -0.04%
Britton Johnson SO WING 5 0.22% 0.00% 0.00% 0.06%
Javian Davis-Fleming R-FR POST REDSHIRT
51.95% 53.60% 62.55%
NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Kira Lewis | SOPHOMORE | POINT GUARD

If you’re an Alabama believer this season, it likely starts with Kira Lewis. The rangy point guard entered college early and was very impressive in his freshman season. After Avery Johnson left as head coach, Lewis had all of his options open and every school you can think of checked in. After entering the transfer portal, and exploring his options, Lewis opted to stay at Alabama and play for Nate Oats. This was the first big recruiting win for Oats, because Lewis turned down Duke and Memphis, two programs with top incoming recruiting classes.

The leading scorer from last year, Lewis wasn’t always the most efficient, but he was always reliable. He can improve in the pick and roll and with some decision making, but being so young and so good already you can just see how high his ceiling is. If Lewis starts to scratch that surface this year, he’ll help Alabama take off.

There is plenty of talk about Herb Jones, and as been since his arrival on campus a couple years ago. We haven’t yet seen the light come on, but the measurables are there and his ability to defend can keep him on the court. He’s just got to get better offensively.

The interior for the Tide might be problematic, but it certainly starts with the guys coming back. Galin Smith is a big strong body who didn’t play a ton behind Hall last year, but isn’t afraid to crash the glass. Alex Reese provides a little more skill, and could even stretch out to play the wing in a pinch, but seems a better fit as a high-mid post big who can put the ball on the floor a bit. The last returner is Javian Davis, formerly Javian Davis-Fleming (or just Javian Fleming). He sat out last year with a redshirt and isn’t an explosive player, but one who is comfortable with himself and his ability. The offseason word has Davis as a standout on the inside.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

John Petty | JUNIOR | WING

So maybe calling Kira Lewis the first big recruiting win of Nate Oats’ tenure is a little unfair, because technically, John Petty said he was returning to Alabama first. Petty has real ability, but he hasn’t been able to put it all together with any sort of consistency. Petty is as capable of going 7-10 from three and pouring in 30 points as he is going 0-3 and disappearing for entire halves of basketball. Still, a tempo more conducive to his ability and getting out in space and spreading the floor might just be the key that unlocks his talent.

THEN, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Juwan Gary 6'5 220 ★★★★ 86 WING
Fr Jaylen Forbes 6'4 176 ★★★★ 96 CG
Fr Jaden Shackelford 6'3 185 ★★★★ 99 CG
Fr Raymond Hawkins 6'9 240 ★★★ 182 POST
Jr James Rojas 6'8 215 ★★★ 4 POST
G-Sr James Bolden 6'0 170 CG

Another big get for Oats and Alabama was landing former 5-star point guard and Villanova transfer Jahvon Quinerly. The smooth and speedy guard with slick handles and an offensive flair wasn’t a great fit at Villanova, where he struggled in the disciplined system and often got lost on defense, but hoping for a new start he landed on Alabama. His request for a waiver to play right away was denied, but Quinerly will undoubtedly be a big part of the plans for next season.

The rest of the recruiting class is a good one, led by lefty lead guard Jaden Shackelford. Shackelford is a solid 6’3 and 185 pounds who fits better at point, but can slide to the off guard spot. He and Jaylen Forbes form a nice combo for the future of the class on the perimeter. Juwan Gary is higher ranked - if only slightly - and is a very traditional small forward. He’s comfortable shooting from behind the arc, but looks best in transition and attacking the rim, but will be out this year after tearing his ACL.

Raymond Hawkins is a promising looking young big who may be pressed into early minutes thanks to the injury to James Rojas, who is a little bit more of a combo forward with mobility in the 12-15 foot range.

The last member might have the most impact, as James ‘Beetle’ Bolden is a quick shooting combo guard who is small in stature but plays fast and has a quick trigger. He’s a plus offensive player which should be welcomed to the roster and should provide important minutes off the bat. Overall, Oats’ recruiting since landing the Alabama job has been excellent, and he’s on some very big recruits in 2020 as well.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Kira Lewis, Jr. Jaden Shackelford Jahvon Quinerly
(2) Combo Guard James Bolden Jaylen Forbes
(3) Wing John Petty, Jr. Juwan Gary
(4) Combo Forward Alex Reese Herbert Jones James Rojas
(5) Post Javian Davis-Fleming Galin Smith Raymond Hawkins

The lead minutes at point guard are going to Kira Lewis pretty much all the time, but with Lewis, Bolden and Quinerly, plus Shackelford, the ball handling duties look solid even beyond this year after Bolden graduates and Lewis likely goes pro. In need of consistent shooting, it’s likely you’ll see some minutes for Herb Jones at the four spot instead of his more traditional wing spot because... well, because he can’t shoot. The interior is where a few questions pop up, the depth and experience isn’t great. With Reese and Smith, there’s some experience, but Davis and Hawkins might provide slightly more upside.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 21-10 | KenPom Projected Record: 14-15

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 5 Home Penn 112 W
Nov 11 Home Florida Atlantic 177 W
Nov 15 Away Rhode Island 83 W
Nov 19 Home Furman 105 W
Nov 27 Neutral North Carolina 6 L
Nov 28 Neutral Michigan/Iowa State 21 / 47 L
Nov 29 Neutral - W
Dec 6 Home Stephen F Austin 300 W
Dec 14 Away Penn State 43 W
Dec 18 Home* Samford 128 W
Dec 21 Home* Belmont 85 W
Dec 29 Home Richmond 92 W
Jan 25 Home Kansas State 49 L
avg 107.27 10-3

Many SEC teams try to avoid disaster, but sometimes you don’t have much of a choice. The predictions for Alabama range from the lower end of the league to about where we’ve got them projected in this space. Regardless of your optimism or pessimism on the Tide, going to the Battle for Atlantis is wrought with potholes. Opening up with North Carolina is a big ask, then Iowa State or Michigan in round two, then some combination of Gonzaga, Seton Hall, Oregon or Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles are the outlier, but everyone else should be really good. There rest of the schedule is manageable but tough. An early road game against Rhode Island might set the tone for the season. Plus a trip to Penn State won’t be easy either.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 4 Away Florida 12 L
Jan 8 Home Mississippi State 53 W
Jan 11 Away Kentucky 2 L
Jan 15 Home Auburn 22 W
Jan 18 Home Missouri 39 W
Jan 22 Away Vanderbilt 148 L
Jan 29 Away LSU 38 L
Feb 1 Home Arkansas 44 W
Feb 4 Home Tennessee 19 W
Feb 8 Away Georgia 55 L
Feb 12 Away Auburn 22 L
Feb 15 Home LSU 38 W
Feb 19 Home Texas A&M 58 W
Feb 22 Away Ole Miss 60 W
Feb 25 Away Mississippi State 53 L
Feb 29 Home South Carolina 69 W
Mar 3 Home Vanderbilt 144 W
Mar 7 Away Missouri 39 L
avg 50.83 10-8

Like most of the SEC, the optimism and pessimism of the season largely lands on two or three key games. If Alabama wins them, they’re safely into the NCAA tournament and a top half of the SEC team. With home-and-home games against four teams who are within a game or two in the standings, it’s easy to see how the middle of the league is so transitional. How Alabama fares against Missouri, LSU, MIssissippi State, and Auburn might be the difference. Getting both Kentucky and Florida on the road is good, and a home and home against Vanderbilt could give them a leg up if there isn’t a let down. This 10-8 record seems pretty contingent on the Tide protecting their home court. Miss on one or two of those games and things get dicey, because there isn’t a ton of room to make up games on the road.

OVERVIEW

Alabama has a real chance to be an outlier for the computer models. Data typically indicates that teams who are bad in one facet of the game, without any real impact players moving in, and under a coaching change don’t usually get a lot better in one year under their new coach.

The projections or predictions here contradict that idea. The thought being, with Kira Lewis, an NBA level talent at lead guard, Alabama and Nate Oats have the kind of cog needed to improve over a fatal flaw from last year. Alabama’s offense wasn’t good, and the only good thing most nights was Lewis. So when you recruit and land an offensive minded coach you would think he might be able to further unlock Lewis’ ability to exploit a defender, and with an added shooter or two, give him the lanes to get to the basket or find said shooters.

alabama returning players shot chart synergy
Alabama Returning Players Shot Chart

This is why it’s very important for James Bolden to find a home and find one quickly. If John Petty hasn’t found consistency, there will need to be somebody to keep defenders honest when Lewis sets up to turn the corner in a pick and roll. It’s also why I like Alex Reese, somebody who can provide a little pick-and-pop in that position to give defenses multiple looks.

I just keep coming back to Lewis and his ability as the main reason for optimism in Tuscaloosa.

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The depth has taken a serious hit with James Rojas and Juwan Gary both out for the year, then Quinerly’s request for immediate eligibility gets denied and you’re down to 10 bodies. Looking at the starting five, plus Herb Jones and it’s a nice nod. The rest of the pieces, while promising, are really young and unproven. It’s difficult to fully rely upon freshmen at the back end of the top 100.

With that said, Lewis is a future 1st round draft pick for a reason. And when you start your team with a future 1st round pick you’re already ahead of the game. The interior quality concerns aside, Lewis and Bolden are knowns, and Petty has been good enough to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Understanding their low ranking in Kenpom is easy enough, but it’s why his rankings are nearly always accurate with some big outliers. Buying into Nate Oats + Kira Lewis in a league chock-full of flawed teams isn’t a huge stretch. With Oats, you’re hoping he can turn the tables on the offense, which was his forte at Buffalo. The Bulls ran tempo and never finished below 37 in Adjusted Offense for his four years there. Translate to Alabama, the Tide haven’t had an offense that efficient since 2007.

So hold steady defensively and boost the offense instead of slipping and you can move off the meager 70th rating ahead of the season. The margin of error in the SEC is thin enough a big year from Lewis could be enough to be the difference between 7-11 or 11-7. The latter gets you into the tournament, the former just means Oats and company probably have another year or two before he breaks through.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in the record prediction for the site listed at the top of the page, and within “the Masses” picks as well. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.