#30 Alabama 2019-20 Preview

-Jim Root

Key Returners: Kira Lewis, John Petty, Herb Jones, Alex Reese, Galin Smith
Key Losses:
Donta Hall, Tevin Mack (grad transfer), Dazon Ingram (grad transfer), Daniel Giddens (grad transfer)
Key Newcomers:
James Bolden (West Virginia), James Rojas (JUCO), Juwan Gary, Jaylen Forbes, Jaden Shackelford, Raymond Hawkins


Outlook: Proponents of Penny Hardaway, Jerry Stackhouse, etc. – please look away, because Alabama is the site of (another) failed experiment in hiring a head coach with zero (none) college coaching experience. Johnson lasted four years, losing at least 15 games in all four seasons, and despite significant victories on the recruiting trail, he was never able to elevate the level of his team past “bubble-adjacent.”

  • Johnson’s recruiting classes from 2016-2018: 50th, 8th, 24th

  • Alabama’s KenPom finishes from 2017-2019: 56th, 57th, 64th

The Tide simply were not showing enough progress on the court, and in Johnson’s place, the athletic department made an aggressive hire: Nate Oats from Buffalo. As recently as the 2012-13 season, Oats was a high school head coach in Romulus, Michigan, but has since risen through the coaching ranks like a rocket bound for the moon. He looked like a future high major candidate after his Buffalo Bulls beat an immensely talented Arizona team in 2018, but he really kicked down the door of “rising star” status with a barnstorming 2018-19 campaign in which Buffalo went 32-4, played like a top 25 team by nearly all analytical measurements, and won an NCAA game for the second straight year.

It’s likely no surprise by this consensus ranking, but we at 3MW are all aboard the Oats Express hype train (particularly me, Jim, who voted them 17th). His teams play with an intensity and intelligence on both ends that can only come from a skilled coach and motivator, and his ability to reel in talent at an upstate New York MAC school bodes well for doing the same (and better) at an SEC institution, albeit one with limited basketball tradition.

Alright, enough intro. This Tide squad comes ready-made with an alpha initiator starter pack, as rising sophomore Kira Lewis looks to be one of the conference’s best players after impressing as a 17-year-old point guard. He hit a bit of a rookie wall down the stretch, but with an offseason to develop and playing for a “guard whisperer” in Oats, we expect a sizable leap this year.

Lewis will start alongside two of John Petty, James Bolden, a West Virginia grad transfer, and James Rojas, a highly-touted JUCO transfer from powerhouse Hutchinson CC. All are proven scorers, particularly when playing alongside a skilled creator. Petty is the poster child for “streaky shooter” in my college basketball dictionary, although I do have hope he’ll progress in a system more focused on taking *good* shots. Similar to Mississippi with Devontae Shuler and Breein Tyree, the Tide were much better last year when its returning guards shared the court together:

Bolden prefers to be a spot up threat and secondary creator, compared to last year where he was miscast as the Mountaineers’ primary PG. Rojas, meanwhile, looks primed to fill the Jeremy Harris role from Oats’s Buffalo days, right down to the JUCO background, as a skilled big wing who can dominate mismatches with his shooting and ball skills.

Oats will unleash all of these weapons in transition as frequently as possible; his last two Buffalo teams ranked second and ninth, respectively, in percentage of offensive possessions finished in transition. Guards are free to push the tempo even off of misses, exploiting teams that aren’t disciplined or organized enough to get back and cut off driving lanes. Again, Lewis and Bolden feel like ideal ball-handlers for this system, and with the athleticism of Petty and Herb Jones, they should have weapons running the wings.

Oats’s defensive approach is rather simple: half court man-to-man at all times, forcing opponents to execute against a set defense that rotates like a well-oiled machine. He extends that man-to-man with his athletic guards, getting into passing lanes and disrupting the flow of opposing offenses, leading to a high rate of inefficient isolation possessions. This Bama roster has the pieces to execute that scheme right away: Lewis, Bolden, and Petty have a nice combination of size and quickness in the backcourt, Jones is one of the best and most versatile individual defenders in the country, and a recruiting class with three top 100 wings (Juwan Gary, Jaylen Forbes, and Jaden Shackelford) should provide plenty of depth. The youngsters will get on the court via their defensive effort, and the competition should breed high performance. Bolden is particularly intriguing on this end, as his experience in the “Press Virginia” scheme should leave him well-suited for Oats’s demanding ball pressure.

The main area of concern – probably on both ends of the court – will be rebounding. The Tide essentially viewed rebounds as a Donta Hall problem last year, and with Hall off to eat glass for a professional team somewhere, someone on the current roster needs to fill that role, whether it’s veteran juniors Galin Smith or Alex Reese or the inexperienced Javian Davis (sophomore) or Raymond Hawkins (freshman). Smith has some starting experience, while Reese’s outside shooting could give the offense a Nick Perkins-esque element of floor spacing off the bench.

Bottom Line: The Johnson-to-Oats upgrade is worth 15-20 spots in rankings alone, and the way the remaining Tide roster (along with the key offseason additions) seems to fit Oats’s style have us (mainly me) confident in Alabama taking a leap. He’ll need to find the right combinations up front and have the players take to his system, but his youth, energy, and up-tempo attack should engage them quickly. Alabama has had a top 100 offense per KenPom only once in the last nine seasons, while Oats had Buffalo - yes, Buffalo - in the top 35 the last two years. With improvement on that end and a potentially stingy defense, the Crimson Tide are a sneaky contender to finish in the SEC’s top three.