Another Step Forward

Alabama’s tournament drought is over, now Tide thirsts for more

Though not as prolific as its football counterpart, Alabama basketball boasts a strong history of its own. The Tide has amassed 20 NCAA Tournament appearances— including an Elite Eight run in 2004— seven SEC regular season titles, and six SEC Tournament championships.

In recent history, Bama has struggled to regain the excitement and consistency it once had when C.M. Newton and later Wimp Sanderson guided the program, and players like Ennis Whatley, Robert Horry, and Latrell Sprewell thrilled Tide fans with their exploits. NCAA Tournament appearances were almost a given in those days.

Last season, though, gave some fans flashbacks to those glory days as the Tide brought a renewed energy to Coleman Coliseum and claimed the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in six years and its first NCAA Tournament win in 12 years. Prior to last season’s NCAA Tournament run, Alabama had an uncharacteristic six-year drought from the tournament.

Alabama Head Coach Avery Johnson and Athletic Director Greg Byrne | Photo by Robert Sutton – Courtesy Alabama Athletics

Since Coach Avery Johnson’s arrival in 2015, Alabama has gone 57-46, but the Tide has made progress each year under Johnson, culminating in last season’s March Madness run. Tide fans hope Year 4 of the Avery Johnson era means another step forward, which will mean Alabama will play on the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament this year.

To find itself playing deep into March, Alabama will have to find some scoring to fill the void left by point guard and NBA Lottery pick, Collin Sexton, as well as starting small forward Braxton Key, who transferred to Virginia. Alabama also needs to shore up its perimeter defense which allowed an inordinate amount of three-pointers in big games. In fact, Alabama’s last three opponents— Kentucky, Virginia Tech and Villanova—combined to shoot almost 50 percent (38 of 77) from three-point land against the Tide. Another year of experience for the Tide returnees, coupled with the length and athleticism of newcomers like 6-foot-6 Tevin Mack should help in both regards. 

Tevin Mack | Courtesy Alabama Athletics

Alabama returns seven of the top nine players in its rotation from last season’s 20-16 campaign (8-10 in SEC). The Tide will rely heavily on veteran inside presence and returning starter, Donta Hall (10.6 ppg/6.6 rpg), as well as sophomores John Petty (10.2 ppg) and Herbert Jones (4.2 ppg/3.5 rpg). As a junior, Hall had the most productive year of his career, as he shot a school record 72.6 percent from the field and was the team’s leading rebounder.

Donta Hall | Photo courtesy Alabama Athletics

Petty was the Tide’s main threat from beyond the arc last season, including a blistering 6-for-8 performance from downtown in the Tide’s first-round NCAA Tournament win against Virginia Tech. He also broke the school record by draining 10 three-pointers against Alabama A&M.

Jones displayed a versatile, slashing style that allowed him to get the ball to the rim or settle for a mid-range jumper. He also projects as one of the best defenders in college basketball, as he set a school single-season record by taking 23 charges last season.

Other returnees include experienced guards Dazon Ingram (9.7 ppg/5.7 rpg) and Avery Johnson, Jr. (4.4 ppg) and a host of frontcourt veterans that will assist Hall in the post. Included in this group is sophomore forward Galin Smith, who saw a significant increase in playing time during the postseason. If the Tide wants to make noise in March, its big men need to do a better job on the boards this season, as Bama was outrebounded in 12 of its 16 losses last year.

Davis-Fleming (13), from Canton, Miss., hopes to be a big factor for the Tide | Courtesy Alabama Athletics

Adding to an experienced group of returnees are newcomers Mack, Kira Lewis and Javian Davis-Fleming. Mack, a Texas transfer, led the Longhorns’ in scoring (14.8 ppg) and three-point percentage (.391) his last season at Texas. He figures to play significant minutes at one of the wing positions for the Tide. Lewis, though only 17 years old, will have to grow up quickly and be counted on to help shoulder the load in the Tide backcourt. At 6-foot-9, forward Davis-Fleming is already drawing rave reviews in preseason camp and will give the Tide another athletic big man to wreak havoc in the paint.

If Alabama can record some quality early wins against strong competition in the Charleston Classic, against Arizona on Dec. 9 and Penn State on Dec. 21—both at home in Coleman Coliseum— and put itself in good position going into SEC play, the Tide will be primed to make a strong push to the top half of the SEC again.

If that happens, look for Alabama to make its first back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances since 2005-2006. H&A

All photos courtesy Alabama Athletics

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