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Alabama has talent galore, and a system to light up the league

Previewing the #4 team in the SEC, the Alabama Crimson Tide.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Expectations were all over the map a year ago for the Alabama Crimson Tide and new head coach Nate Oats. So, whether Bama overachieved or underachieved was a moving target. We forecasted an 11-7 finish in the SEC, three games off their 8-10 finish. That’s the difference between fifth and ninth.

As we’ve written, Oats subscribes wholly to the pace-and-space style that’s filtered down from the NBA. The Tide played fast, attacked early, and hunted for 3-pointers or layups. In some senses, it was more uptempo offshoot of the Houston Rockets’ style. They unleashed Kira Lewis Jr., a first-round pick last month, to create and power that attack. Yet the Tide were inconsistent, and the philosophical shift left them rickety on defense.

Over their final six games, they lost to Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Missouri, effectively zapping hopes for an NCAA tournament bid. But if anything, expectations have leveled up in Oats’ second season, one where he returns a trio of backcourt veterans, infuses quality transfers, and welcomes a top-end recruiting class.

And we find ourselves in a similar spot: optimistic but wondering if the Tide can round themselves into a reliable group.


Previous SEC Previews

Alabama Preview

#4 Alabama Crimson Tide

Last Season: 16-15 (9-9 in conference) No. 60 KenPom

My Prediction: 17-10 (11-7, 4th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 5th in conference

KenPom Projection: 14-12 (9-9 in conference) No. 46

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Nate Oats | Second Season, 16-15

While at Buffalo, Oats, whose roots stretch back to coaching high school in Michigan, saw his stock soar. While Bama is a football school, the gridiron success helps pump in enough money to allow the basketball program to spend like a perennial contender. The only issue is the on-court results haven’t matched up to the investment. Early on, Oats has courted talent at a level that aligns with that commitment. We’ll have to see if his approach helps it reach the potential. Anthony Grant and Avery Johnson were good coaches, but they could never quite figure out how to turn talent into potent offenses. Oats’ hiring is an obvious sign Bama wants to put that problem to rest.

Seat Temp: COLD

alabama 10 year preview

The only consistent trait the Tide show is inconsistency. The Tide worm their way onto the bubble, but they’ve only earned two bids in recent years—both of which saw them seeded No. 9.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Kira Lewis, Jr professional 31 92.62% 22.54% 23.89% 22.57%
James 'Beetle' Bolden graduation 27 46.98% 9.01% 5.73% 9.58%
Javian Davis transfer 31 39.44% 7.32% 8.32% 7.11%
Galin Smith transfer 31 31.90% 3.82% 3.44% 4.42%
Jaylen Forbes transfer 30 24.84% 3.15% 1.84% 4.07%
Raymond Hawkins transfer 6 0.24% 0.00% -0.08% 0.04%
Sam Okauru transfer 2 0.40% 0.00% 0.04% 0.00%
47.28% 45.84% 43.18% 47.79%

The appreciation of Lewis was practically unanimous, and his raw speed and toolkit seemed an optimal fit for Oats. The fact Bama never became a factor in the SEC race over his two seasons in Tuscaloosa might explain why he didn’t make a dent nationally, but NBA front offices marked him early.

James Bolden provided solid reserve minutes off the bench, but didn’t quite have the supply the microwave scoring some imagined when he came from West Virginia as a graduate transfer. Meanwhile, the rest of Bama’s roster moves are of the variety you expect after a coaching change. Javian Davis transferred to Mississippi State in hopes for an offense that better featured his skillset. The same could be said for Galen Smith, a reliable and stout lowblock player who didn’t really fit into Oats’ more modern scheme. Jalen Forbes bounced to Tulane after the former four-star guard had trouble cracking the rotation.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Jaden Shackleford SO CG 31 72.22% 18.33% 57.20% 17.25%
John Petty, Jr. JR WING 29 77.14% 16.56% 62.10% 18.45%
Alex Reese JR CF 31 56.11% 10.74% 51.70% 10.16%
Herb Jones JR WING 27 56.90% 8.42% 53.80% 10.97%
Britton Johnson JR WING 6 0.48% 0.12% 50.00% 0.05%
Tyler Barnes JR POST 7 0.56% 0.00% 0.00% 0.05%
Adam Cottrell SO CG 4 0.16% 0.00% 0.00% -0.11%
Jahvon Quinerly R-FR PG REDSHIRT
James Rojas CF REDSHIRT
Juwan Gary WING REDSHIRT
52.71% 54.17% 56.82%
NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Jaden Shackleford | SOPHOMORE | COMBO GUARD

A clear surprise and breakout performer last year, Jaden Shackleford’s quick-twitch athleticism and fearlessness made him an early contributor. The lowest-rated recruit in Oat’s maiden recruiting class, Shackelford wound up starting 16 conference games, averaging 16 points and knocking down 38 percent of his 3-point attempts in 31.5 minutes per game. Within the conference, Shackelford’s value is clearly known, but if he takes a step forward, he could be a dark horse for the conference’s Player of the Year.

Typically, Lewis’ departure would create a vacuum. Fortunately, Jahvon Quinerly, a former five-star talent whose circuitous path wound from Arizona to Villnova, was biding his time as a sit-out transfer. After getting caught up in the FBI’s investigation into corruption and struggles at ‘Nova, it’s easy to forget how lauded Quinerly once was. If he’s settled and has a clear head, he can pick up the baton that Lewis left behind.

Inside, Alex Reese is one of the few holdovers from Johnson’s tenure, but he embraced Oats’ desire to have his bigs step out, space and fire from behind the 3-point arc. So much that he attempted 100 more shots behind the arc as junior.

The guy who really stirs the drink at Alabama is Herb Jones. The senior’s offensive game has always been raw, but he defends, rebounds, creates deflections and can wreak havoc with his length. He doesn’t need to be a primary option, but a semi-reliable jumper or an improved ability to attack off the bounce would do wonders.

Finally, Oats has depth with wing Juwan Gary and post James Rojas, both of whom were injured last season.

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Mississippi Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

John Petty Jr | SENIOR | WING

After Lewis, the senior wing was the biggest winner in Alabama’s coaching change. Petty remains a catch-and-shoot specialist who was able to shed his role as as secondary creator. With Oats in charge, he lit up the SEC, knocking 49 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s. Overall, he knocked down 44 percent of his long-range attempts, an increase of 10 percentage point from his sophomore campaign. No matter what Alabama is doing, I’d imagine a healthy dose of Petty shooting deep jump shots are part of the plans.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Joshua Primo 6'6 185 ★★★★ 58 CG
Fr Alex Tchikou 6'11 210 ★★★★ 59 POST
Fr Keon Ambrose-Hylton 6'8 215 ★★★★ 126 POST
Fr Darius Miles 6'7 176 ★★★ 148 CF
Jr Keon Ellis 6'6 170 JUCO - PG
Sr Jordan Bruner 6'10 225 Grad Transfer - POST

What’s really spurred buzz around the Tide is the success its staff has found on the recruiting trail. The most exciting prospect in the class is Joshua Primo, a lithe and silky smooth combo guard originally from Canada. Alex Tchikou is an exciting prospect whose skillset fits what Oats is trying to do. (Unfortunately, an Achilles injury in the preseason has sidelined Tchikou for the season.) Keon Ambrose-Hylton isn’t super athletic but shoots the ball well. His handle also looks pretty competent.

Darius Miles is an intriguing prospect with great size, but he needs to add some weight. With a quick trigger on his jumper and elite agility, he projects as a better-shooting version of Jones. Keon Ellis is a little more ready made contributor at the wing spot coming from junior college. He’s an electric athlete and tailor made for a team playing with tempo.

Jordan Bruner was brought in to fill in a specific role. He was a very effective big while at Yale. He’s a great rebounder and specifically on the defensive end, where Alabama struggled a year ago.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Jahvon Quinerly Josh Primo
(2) Combo Guard Jaden Shackleford Keon Ellis Juwan Gary
(3) Wing John Petty Darius Miles
(4) Combo Forward Herb Jones James Rojas Keon Ambrose-Hylton
(5) Post Jordan Bruner Alex Reese Alex Tchikou

This is a wonderfully deep and interesting roster, and the depth at guard is certainly exciting.

Oats also has a ready-made structure. Petty, Shackleford and Jones are locks to start, and Quinerly will get the nod at lead guard. Intrigue rests in the front court. Does Oats stick with Reese? Or will he opt for Bruner, who’s ability to distribute and play away from the paint win out?

On the bench, Oats can cycle Primo, Miles, Gary and Ellis through the lineup, ensuring the pace doesn’t drop off. He’ll be banking on Rojas, Reese and, potentially, Ambrose-Hylton to backstop the post. In fact, the only real concern is whether the inside can be as strong as the outside.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 17-10 | KenPom Projected Record: 14-11

NCAA Basketball: Tulane at Houston Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 25 Home Jacksonville State 295 W
Nov 30 Neutral Stanford 32 W
Dec 1 Neutral NC/UNLV 23 /120 L
Dec 2 Neutral tba W
Dec 12 Away Clemson 40 W
Dec 15 Home Furman 79 W
Dec 19 Home Houston 22 L
Dec 22 Home East Tennessee St 169 W
Jan 30 Away Oklahoma 31 L
avg 95.43 6-3

Alabama is in the Maui Invitational as we speak. They’ve already beaten Jacksonville State, but Stanford put an 18-point shellacking on the Tide the day before this preview ran. The likes of North Carolina, Indiana and Texas are also in that field. At worst, you’re getting three tough games. The Houston matchup is also pivotal. The Cougars are a top-15 team led by Kelvin Sampson and multiple NBA level players. And in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge, they’ve got a road trip to the always tough Oklahoma.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 29 Home Ole Miss 41 W
Jan 2 Away Tennessee 19 L
Jan 5 Home Florida 24 W
Jan 9 Away Auburn 75 L
Jan 12 Away Kentucky 21 L
Jan 16 Home Arkansas 49 W
Jan 19 Away LSU 43 L
Jan 23 Home Mississippi State 92 W
Jan 26 Home Kentucky 21 W
Feb 3 Home LSU 43 W
Feb 6 Away Missouri 55 L
Feb 9 Away South Carolina 67 W
Feb 13 Home Georgia 99 W
Feb 17 Away Texas A&M 65 L
Feb 20 Home Vanderbilt 125 W
Feb 24 Away Arkansas 49 W
Feb 27 Away Mississippi State 92 L
Mar 2 Home Auburn 75 W
avg 58.61 11-7

There’s no hiding early on in SEC play. There are early dates with Florida and Tennessee, while home-and-homes against Kentucky and LSU loom. Those are opportunities to notch big wins and insert yourself in the title race—or knock you out early on. Their early slate also sees them take on Auburn and Arkansas. After those first seven games, the schedule softens a little with road games at South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State. Those might not be glittering, but they can help Oats’ group make up lost ground.

OVERVIEW

Last year was a bit of a sea change for the program. Oats overhaul puts the Tide at the opposite stylistic pole of its last two coaches. Alabama became capable of nearly anything offensively, eclipsing 100 points on several occasions. However, the reliance on 3-pointers made the offense sink or swim. A dismal shooting night and a porous defense could make for ugly results.

alabama synergy 2020

Balance is a good thing. Not a novel statement there, but it’s one to keep in mind and why there’s reason for hesitation about this season in Tuscaloosa. Look at the shot chart. The Tide return players who attempted 612 shots behind the arc and 408 in the paint. And just 28 in the mid-range. Houston’s approach found success in the regular season, but opponents found a way to neutralize once the postseason rolled around.

While college basketball still borrows inspiration from the NBA, the way the game is played at both has diverged. Spacing at the college level can be cluttered, and the number of truly elite pick-and-roll point guards is a small group. Meanwhile, productive college players can struggle to find a home, especially more traditional bigs, once they try to earn a living.

Oats is all-in on replicating what you see in the professional ranks, a move that also makes his program enticing to elite recruits. It’s enabled him to amass a slew of talented shooting guards, but with the roster more to his liking, we’ll get a better gauge of its viability.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Swapping in Quinerly can’t be understated. Sure, Lewis could create and distribute, but he was still hard-wired to attack and score. Quinerly tilts his game toward setting up others. He’s not lacking options for sickouts on the corner, but if he makes the right read and turns the corner, will his interior options be capable of finishing around the rim?

It’s one thing to play at a faster pace and another to give up a lot of points per possession. The problem was last year the Tide did both. For Alabama to have serious aspirations, they’re going to need a little more offensive diversity and a way to string together stops.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

Listen, Shackelford and Petty are arguably the best backcourt in the SEC. They’ve got stellar set-up man who just had a year to acclimate and build a rapport in the practice gym. Jones could be the top defender in the conference. Not bad. If Oats identifies a steady big man and sorts out his bench, the Tide’s talent and system will be unlike any other in the conference.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

Alabama is doing everything right. Investing in facilities. Hiring an innovative and creative coach. Leveraging those assets into landing talented prospects. And the product is still meh. Until Oats is able to get that talent to reach its potential, he’ll face concerns over whether buzz is just more hot air.


About the preview: In past years we’ve had a single Google Form where a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick of the entire league schedule game by game. Because the Coronavirus has impacted just about everything, the schedule came out so late we were unable to run through this process. I worked with Matt Harris to get as much of a consensus between our two outcomes of picks (they are still game by game) but in the end these are all MY picks. I’ve tried to include the SEC Media’s predictions and KenPom’s preseason ratings into the preview to set some kind of balance.


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.