A “hard-hat guy.”
A “glue guy.”
An “old man.”
All of these descriptives and more have been used to describe Alabama senior forward Riley Norris. As far as college basketball is concerned, Norris meets the listing on all of the above, but that is only part his story.
More than anything, he is an overcomer.
The 6-foot-7, 24-year-old senior forward is in his fifth season with Alabama after being granted a medical redshirt after the 2017-18 season. Even though Norris played in nine games for the Tide early last year, he suffered a hip injury that required surgery in December 2017. After missing the rest of the year, Norris eagerly awaited the opportunity to get this season rolling.
But just days before Alabama was scheduled to tip off, Norris felt his heart racing during practice and immediately informed the training staff. It was discovered that Norris had heart tissue that needed to be removed. Norris underwent a procedure known as a cardiac ablation where abnormal heart tissue that had been destroyed was causing an abnormal heart rhythm. He had undergone the same procedure when he was at Albertville (Alabama) High School. But the timing of this event could not have been worse as the Tide tipped off the 2018-2019 season.
Fortunately, the cardiac ablation procedure went well, and Norris, after missing the team’s first seven contests, was able to play in his first game for Alabama on December 4 against Georgia State. Norris has played in every game since, averaging 7.0 points per game and 3.5 rebounds per game. He is also Alabama’s second-best 3-point shooter, connecting on just under 40 percent of his attempts.
More than his scoring and rebounding, however, Norris provides a stabilizing force for a team that has been up and down this season. When a big shot is needed, or the ball is loose on the floor, more often than not Norris is ready to step up.
The ability to adjust and do whatever is needed has always been Norris’ trademark. He came to Alabama as one of the state’s most decorated high school basketball players ever. He was a five-time All-State selection and finished his high school career as the state’s second-leading all-time rebounder and eighth-leading scorer.
The going got tougher for Norris at Alabama, but his toughness became his best attribute. The role he shouldered as a standout high school player changed when he joined the Crimson Tide. Alabama needed somebody to do all of the little things—the effort plays—more than it needed anything else.
“He’s our hard-hat guy,” Alabama head coach Avery Johnson has repeatedly said.
Under head coach Anthony Grant, Norris played in every game as a true freshman. When Grant was let go after Norris’ freshman season and Johnson was brought in to lead the Tide, Norris saw his role increase. He had a career high 27 points and eight 3-pointers his sophomore year against South Carolina. He had a career high 16 rebounds against LSU a month later. Norris has also recorded at least one double-double (double figures in points and rebounds in a single game) in each season he has played at Alabama.
Despite playing in 110 games and making 57 starts heading into this season, he was able to find extra motivation after being unable to participate in the Tide’s lone NCAA trip since his arrival on campus. The maturity and hunger shown by this fifth-year senior to make this season a success has not gone unnoticed by Bama’s head coach.
“I can talk to him at a different level,” Johnson told AL.com earlier this year. “Riley can get coached harder than anybody on our team times five.”
Five years of playing college basketball and handling the adversity of coaching changes, injuries and illness will make a person tougher. But it is Norris’ ability to overcome and succeed that sets him apart from his peers and will keep him fondly in the memories of Alabama basketball fans long after his playing days are done. H&A
All photos courtesy Alabama Athletics