For years, Alabama has been the very definition of an average basketball program. Before last season, Alabama was rarely good, rarely bad, and seemed to tread water no matter who they put on the sidelines. Consider this— for over 25 years, they only had three seasons of sub .500 basketball, but just two seasons of single digit losses. A combined win-loss record over those years of 205-211, and half of them with a record in the .400 - .600 range. Basically, they were just okay.
But things changed last year. Nate Oats brought in a new approach, and used (mostly) Avery Johnson’s players to run through the SEC with a 16-2 record, go 26-7 overall, and land a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This season, expectations are high as Oats has continued his recruiting hot streak and brings back some key elements from a team which might’ve changed the tune for basketball in Tuscaloosa moving forward.
Previous SEC Previews
- 14. Georgia Bulldogs
- 13. South Carolina Gamecocks
- 12. Texas A&M Aggies
- 11. Missouri Tigers
- 10. Vanderbilt Commodores
- 9. Ole Miss Rebels
- 8. Mississippi State Bulldogs
- 7. LSU Tigers
- 6. Florida Gators
- 5. Auburn Tigers
- 4. Tennessee Volunteers
- 3. Arkansas Razorbacks
#2 Alabama Crimson Tide
Last Season: 26 - 7 (16-2 in conference) No. 9 KenPom
My Prediction: 22 - 8 (13-5, 2nd in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 13.9 - 4.1 (1st in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 2nd in conference
KenPom Projection: 20 - 9 (12-6 in conference) No. 19
HEAD COACH: Nate Oats | Third Season, 42-22
Most coaches talk about modernizing their approach and playing with a different style. But when it comes to executing those changes they end up falling short. The conservative nature of college coaches (and not just in basketball) is something well known. By nature they seem to be risk adverse. And when you’re trying to limit risk, you make more conservative decisions. They also tend to be control freaks. So they slow play down, focus on what they can control (defense!), and fall short of a stated belief to play fast and loose.
But Nate Oats actually did it. Alabama went from a plodding team under Avery Johnson, to one which played with the 6th fastest offensive tempo in the country the very next year. They pushed it to 2nd last year. But playing fast doesn’t mean you can’t defend. And Alabama’s breakout was nearly completely on the defensive end. Where their offense was fast, the defense ranked 277th in average defensive possession length. Oats proved you can set your players loose on offense and still field a tough defense.
The next step is finding the sustainability of the program.
Seat Temp: COLD
You can see what I was talking about above with the very average nature of the program. That run from 2014-15 to 2019-20 is like a straight line. The way last season went, it’s almost easy to forget that Bama has not been anywhere close to a postseason fixture. They made the NCAA tournament in 2012, 2018, and last year. But if Oats is able to keep this train moving like he has, it’s easy to see how those fortunes will change.
SO, WHO’S GONE?
If you have a tempered excitement for Alabama this year it’s probably because they lost a lot. For all the preseason hype, it becomes easy to overlook the amount of production lost this offseason. Alabama was known for its defense last year and no player reflected that more than the most switchable guy on the roster, Herb Jones. Jones is what made Alabama go for most of the year. He’s always been a decent offensive weapon, and managed to keep his efficiency despite a jump in usage last year, but where he’s always stood out is on defense where his ability to defend every position boosted Alabama’s defense taking it from 114th to 3rd in one season.
Equally as important to the defensive rotation last year was the buy-in from John Petty. Always an enticing jump shooter, Petty showed a passive indifference towards defense over the years, but bought in last year and turned himself into a fierce wing defender. With his ability to hit from deep, he made the Bama offense dangerous. Surprisingly enough, Petty’s backup, Josh Primo, jumped into the NBA after a decent year as a freshman. He only averaged 8.1 points in about 22 minutes, but shot 38% from 3-point range.
Alex Reese and Jordan Bruner combined to play most of the minutes at the five spot. They played only 85 possessions together, but both fit into what the Tide wanted to do quite well. Reese developed into a 3-point threat over his time in Tuscaloosa, and Bruner was efficient around the rim as well as being a consistent defender and rebounder. Neither really provided much in the way of rim protection.
THEN, WHO’S BACK?
Jaden Shackelford | JUNIOR | COMBO GUARD
There was a question for a while about whether or not Jaden Shackelford was going to stay in the NBA Draft, and then he put his name into the transfer portal on top of it. Most would have assumed at that point Shackelford wasn’t planning on a return to Tuscaloosa, but by mid-July he’d come around and opted to return. Now Alabama has their leading scorer returning, and for a team who lost so much offense from a good team last year, it gives them an anchor. Shackelford is a gifted scorer who doesn’t turn the ball over and is a good fit for the system Oats runs. He’s not a great defender, but Alabama was simply better with him on the floor because of his scoring. One thing is he did fit well with the previous roster, complementing Petty and Jones. It’ll be interesting to watch how he fits in with a mostly new set of guards.
Continuity-wise, Alabama does return a lot of bodies. In addition of Shackelford, they’re bringing back nearly half their minutes and half their points. Alex Tchikou redshirted after having surgery to repair a ruptured achilles tendon, and Keon Ambrose-Hylton was still a little bit of a project and playing behind more experience at the five spot. Darius Miles might be fighting an uphill battle on the wing.
James Rojas came back after an ACL tear to provide solid backup minutes in the post. He struggled a bit offensively, but defended well and could see a little more time in the rotation this year. Keon Ellis moved in from Junior College and fit right into a heap of minutes at the wing. His defensive versatility and efficient scoring helped him increase his role as the season wore on. Ellis actually had the 2nd best efficiency rating on the team, but the lowest usage for anyone who played any substantial minutes. Quietly, one of the most impactful guys on the roster was Juwan Gary. With Gary on the floor, Alabama was 25 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent. He held the best offensive PPP and defensive PPP on the team, largely because he’s a very good defender and seems to relish doing the little things on offense.
Jahvon Quinerly | JUNIOR | POINT GUARD
The saga of Jahvon Quinerly is an interesting one in how he ended up being the lead point guard for the rebirth of Alabama basketball. He was named in the FBI scandal while committed to Arizona, a team doing lots of illegal things in recruiting. He then committed to Villanova where his disinterest in defending left him out of the rotation pretty quickly. He transferred to Alabama and petitioned for immediate eligibility, but was forced to sit out. In year one, he had the highest usage on the team at 24.4%, had a 25% assist rate, and also shot it well from behind the arc. But Quinerly also started only 7 games, with them all coming at the beginning of the year. This year, he’ll be expected to not only start, but take on the leadership role vacated by Herb Jones and John Petty. This team is Quinerly and Shackelford’s now.
AND, WHO’S NEW?
|Jr||Nimari Burnett||6'4||190||Transfer||Texas Tech||WING|
Nate Oats continued his hot streak in recruiting by landing one of the most exciting athletes in the 2021 class, J.D. Davison. Davison is a scoring guard with a tight handle, and explosive athleticism. I recommend watching his YouTube highlights; he can jump high and can dunk it hard. He’s gonna be fun to watch. Alabama also added Charles Bediako, a high 4-star big from IMG Academy who fits well into what Oats is trying to accomplish. He can run, and moves well enough for his size, and has a soft shooting touch which can develop into better range as his skills progress. Then there’s Jusuan Holt, a nice looking prospect from Washington who shoots the ball well and has good athleticism, but likely has some road blocks to early playing time.
Nimari Burnett transferred from Texas Tech hoping to find a program which would let him run a bit more, though unfortunately the former 5-star prospect tore his ACL and is out for the year. And Noah Gurley is the kind of skilled jumbo wing/combo forward which Oats has been searching for. At Furman, he played the 3 - 5 spots, attempted 3-pointers and made them at a 36.6% clip, and also was a good rebounder. He should fit in well in Tuscaloosa.
|(1) Point Guard||Jahvon Quinerly||JD Davison|
|(2) Combo Guard||Jaden Shackleford||Darius Miles||Nimari Burnett|
|(3) Wing||Keon Ellis||Juwan Gary||Jusuan Holt|
|(4) Combo Forward||Noah Gurley||Keon Ambrose-Hylton|
|(5) Post||Alex Tchikou||Charles Bediako||James Rojas|
We actually had the benefit of Alabama having played a game to get some idea of what the depth might look like. Then Oats announced he suspended two players and three other DNPs were due to injuries, so we’re still clueless as to exactly what the lineup will look like. 8 players were available: Shackelford, Ellis, Davison, Gurley, Bediako (all starters), Holt, Miles, and Ambrose-Hylton. Nimari Burnett is also out for the season after tearing his ACL, and James Rojas tore his ACL as well, but early enough he may be able to return this year. So with 11 guys to play, there’s some movement and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Oats get deep into his bench on a regular occasion. When it all shakes out, I have a hard time imagining Shackelford and Ellis aren't starters, along with Gurley. From there it depends on how Oats wants to play. J.D. Davison is likely the most talented player on the roster, so Oats can go small and play four elite guards, around an undersized Gurley. He also has enough size and talent on the interior this season where Bediako, Tchikou, and Ambrose-Hylton could all start at the five. And don’t forget about how good Juwan Gary can be in that combo forward role.
My Projected Record: 22-8 | KenPom Projected Record: 20-9
|Nov 9||Home||Louisiana Tech||88||W|
|Nov 12||Home||South Dakota St||89||W|
|Nov 16||Home||South Alabama||267||W|
|Nov 26||Neutral||Belmont / Drake||77 / 74||W|
|Dec 18||Home||Jacksonville State||136||W|
|Dec 21||Neutral||Colorado State||72||W|
Unafraid, that’s what this schedule looks like. Starting out with Louisiana Tech and South Dakota State, two early top 100 teams, is certainly a type of a warm up. A reprieve of South Alabama and Oakland, followed by the opening round of the ESPN Events Invitational where they face Rick Pitino and Iona. None of those teams are pushover mid-majors. South Alabama has multiple SEC transfers on the roster, and Oakland is always a tough out. After Iona, Alabama either gets Drake or Belmont, and on the other side of the bracket is Kansas. Then they get to travel to Seattle to take on No. 1 Gonzaga. Then Houston, THEN Memphis. All top 15 teams. Colorado State, too! Then to cap things off, Bama plays host to Baylor in the Big 12-SEC Challenge. That’s 9 top 100 opponents, with five in the top 16 (provided they play Kansas) Whew. Alabama could play really well and still come out of the non-conference with five losses.
|Jan 15||Away||Mississippi St||65||L|
|Feb 9||Away||Ole Miss||57||L|
|Feb 16||Home||Mississippi St||65||W|
|Feb 26||Home||South Carolina||86||W|
|Mar 2||Home||Texas A&M||78||W|
Each year, Alabama get Auburn, LSU, and Mississippi State. Despite where Auburn was, that’s not where they are now, and after a Bama sweep last year, those two games are looking key to the standings in the SEC. The Tide have had the upper hand over Mississippi State, and they can’t afford to let that slip this year, either. And the last 4 games against LSU have all gone for Alabama. The additional matchups will see the Tide face are Kentucky and Missouri. Alabama has no real history of beating Kentucky until last year when UK was awful, and Cuonzo Martin is 3-2 against Alabama, including a 2-1 record against Nate Oats. The initial stretch of league play is where Alabama will need to rise, home against Tennessee, two road games against Florida and Missouri, and then home against rival Auburn. Those four games, after going through the non-con schedule... if Alabama is who we think they are, they’ll be fine.
Sea change in Tuscaloosa? Maybe!
Recruiting has never been the problem for Alabama, and Nate Oats has largely kept that train rolling, maybe even improving it a tick. But go back as far as you want and the Tide have landed their share of elite talent on the hardwood. But it’s been awhile since that talent has been set free, and that’s what Oats has done.
Offensively, Alabama’s approach isn’t complicated. They’re going to push the ball, take a truckload of three pointers, attack the rim, and settle for very little in between. Case in point — their synergy shot chart from 2020.
That’s 34 mid range shots… total (full disclosure: we haven’t had luck getting shot charts from last year out of synergy).
Funny enough, Alabama actually wasn’t very good in transition, averaging just over 0.90 points per possession when on the run. Despite having the second shortest offensive possessions in the country, the offense mainly worked because of volume. They weren’t especially efficient overall. It left them prone to more wild swings when the offense went into a funk and the shots were falling. But the difference between last year and the year before? The defense.
Herb Jones was a great defender. John Petty bought in, and they had active wings but switched into a more packline style. Without real rim protection, they limited drives and forced jump shots. Then suddenly, Alabama went from 114th in defensive efficiency to 3rd. Offensively, they went from 37th to 30th. That’s the difference between being a middle of the pack SEC team or a league champion. Slightly better offense, but lockdown level defense. So the question becomes if Alabama can do it again?
If you’re at all worried about the Tide and their prospects this season, it hinges on how good a team absent its best defenders can keep up that top level of defense. As good as Jaden Shackelford and Jahvon Quinerly are on offense, they’re not the defensive stalwarts Herb Jones and John Petty were. But while Jones was a great defender early on, it kicked in later for Petty. So it’s possible the change can occur from within.
For one, Alabama has a lot more rim protection than they had last year, so what they’ve lost in wing length and athleticism they’ve added at the rim. Charles Bediako and Alex Tchikou are both long and athletic post players who can block shots. Plus, they have additional length with Ambrose-Hylton, Gurley, Gary and Holt on the wing. Alabama has the tools and the athletes to be elite again defensively. But that’s been said before.
The talent level on this roster is as good as it’s been. The returning guards, plus J.D. Davison, should give Nate Oats the scoring punch. They excelled last year with kickouts for threes, where Alabama attempted 46.5% of their shots (good for 18th in the country). And while Shackelford and Quinerly are good at getting past a defender, overall the Tide struggled finishing around the rim with a high block rate and a below average conversion percentage.
With a little more size and a little more athleticism, it looks like Alabama could be better on offense. Which is something actually predicted in many of the preseason metrics like Kenpom or BartTorvik. But the defense is expected to take a hit, and that again looks like it’ll probably be the case.
Nate Oats has arrived and implemented deep change in the program at Alabama. Expectations are high, recruiting is excelling. Now he just has to follow up with another good season and suddenly it’ll feel like this is how it’s always been.
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC
I don’t really think there is any reason to not be optimistic about this team. The talent is high and the roster is deep. They should have no issue getting to 10 players, even with two sitting out due to injuries. They have more talent than most every one else, the style of play affords them to be able to withstand dry spells, and they’ve got returning scoring which should only be more efficient. Alabama just has to figure out how to be elite again defensively and this team will take off.
Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC
The only real concerns should be defense and leadership. John Petty and Herb Jones were centerpieces for the remodeled Crimson Tide. Where does the team turn without them? You’d expect Quinerly or Shackelford to fill in their shoes, but it may likely to be the hard-working Keon Ellis to step up. Either it happens or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t Alabama will at least still be pretty good. Just not elite.
About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for 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 Masses” picks. 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.
* - 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.