Key Returners: Braxton Key, Dazon Ingram, Riley Norris, Donta Hall, Avery Johnson
Key Losses: Corban Collins, Jimmie Taylor, Bola Olaniyan
Key Newcomers: Collin Sexton, Daniel Giddens, John Petty, Alex Reese, Herb Jones
Postseason Projection: 5 - 7 seed
Outlook: Forgive the amount of gushing that is about to ensue over the next 700ish words…but man, I am extremely high on Alabama next year. They return a ton of key pieces from a roster that featured the nation’s 10th best defense, per KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, and add an extremely talented freshman class led by the electric Collin Sexton. Sexton should infuse some life into the Tide’s plodding, bricky offense, and if the efficiency sees a noticeable uptick on that end, Avery Johnson is going to have a legitimate SEC contender on his hands.
Let’s start with that impressive defense. As one might expect from a former NBA coach who is constantly taking the pulse of the game, Johnson’s defensive scheme forced opponents into frequent 2-point jumpers, inherently limiting opponents’ efficiency ceiling. The Tide worked to run would-be shooters off the three-point line (it helped to have a lanky guard like Dazon Ingram to lead the charge), forcing them to either challenge the rim or take contested twos. If they did choose to attack the paint, scoring inside was incredibly difficult against Donta Hall and Jimmie Taylor, two formidable shot-blockers. Taylor’s graduation is not the end of the world thanks to Ohio State transfer Daniel Giddens. Giddens actually put up a better block rate during his freshman year in Columbus than either Hall or Taylor – meaning it may only get worse for opposing offenses.
The perimeter athleticism will stay at a high level as well. In addition to Ingram and Sexton, Avery Johnson Jr. takes after his dad as a pest guarding the ball, and John Petty is a 6’5 rangy wing who has already flashed potential as a weakside shot-blocker and will only get better on D as he grows accustomed to the Tide’s system. And Riley Norris, while more of an offensive threat as a shooter, has the length at 6’7 to at least disrupt a shooter’s thought process and funnel them inside the arc. Lastly, Ar'Mond Davis is back after flirting with transferring, but with the influx of perimeter talent, he and his 27% shooting from deep may struggle to find significant playing time.
With such an elite defense, why weren’t the Tide dancing last year? The offense was, in a word, impotent. Alabama ranked 153rd in adjusted offense, primarily due to ranking 312th in 3-point shooting percentage and 320th in free throw percentage. Ingram and true freshman Braxton Key also combined for a dismal 5.6 turnovers per game – you have to take shots to make shots, folks! Sexton and Petty give them two dynamic on-ball threats who can break down opponents off the dribble, which will be huge for a team that often backed itself up against the shot clock last season.
Sexton in particular is a supremely talented scorer with growing distribution skills. He’s endlessly confident and plays with a stylistic flair that Alabama simply lacked last season, and his highlight reel passes were the talk of the all-star circuit this summer (I got to see a few of his mesmerizing dimes in person at the McDonald’s All-American game). He can also bury jumpers, both off the catch and off the dribble, and his presence alone will create better shots for his previously-bricky teammates. Petty has shot the lights out on the team's foreign tour, and although his reputation as a shooter is more "streaky" than pure, the threat of him getting hot will keep opponents honest.
Key is another crucial piece for the offense (yes, I’m going to ignore the easy “key” pun opportunity – but don’t get used to it, I love my lazy puns). He’s a matchup issue due to his versatility on offense and ability to handle the ball at his size (6’8, 225 lbs.), but his poor shooting splits and inability to avoid turnovers were large contributors to the Tide’s bumbling offense. He needs to continue to relentlessly attack the rim off the dribble against slower big guys and punish smaller defenders in the post while taking advantage of the attention that Sexton will draw.
Another weapon for the Tide will be the offensive glass. Although Bola Olaniyan departs, Hall is a devastating rebounder, and Key and Giddens should provide solid support in that regard. Johnson's 2017 recruiting class also includes top-100 prospect Alex Reese and center Galin Smith, both of whom will provide depth on the frontline, with Reese in particular likely to earn playing time right from the jump. Finally, the team’s three highest-usage players last season were all in their first full season in Tuscaloosa, and one would expect to see a nice leap in efficiency as they become more used to the SEC and high-level college basketball.
Bottom Line: Alabama has a volatile range of outcomes, mostly dependent on how much Key improves his efficiency as an interior scorer, and whether Sexton experiences the massive freshman impact that most expect from him. The defense should stay among the nation’s elite; if the offense takes a major leap, Avery Johnson will be back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1987-88 when he was a player at Southern University.