Alabama Poised to Seize an Opportunity in SEC Play

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 23rd, 2015

If you’re an Alabama fan, you couldn’t have been blamed for feeling underwhelmed when athletic director Bill Battle introduced Avery Johnson and his infectious smile as the next Crimson Tide basketball coach. Battle had swung hard for Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall and had come up empty. The former NBA Coach of the Year (Dallas Mavericks) was a good back-up plan in the sense that he brought some name-brand appeal to the program, but would he be a good fit for rhythms and demands of the college game? His last coaching stint did not go well with the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, and his last experience in college was as a player. It was easy to speculate that this was an experiment unlikely to pan out for Alabama, especially since Mississippi State (Ben Howland) and Tennessee (Rick Barnes) hired proven college winners.

Justin Coleman had a career night in the Tide's loss to Oregon (

Justin Coleman had a career night in the Tide’s loss to Oregon (

But as we near the start of conference play, the early returns on Johnson’s performance have been great. There have been wins on the recruiting trail, such as adding five-star shooting guard Terrance Ferguson to his class of 2016. That part was more or less predictable since few other college coaches can sell as much NBA know-how and connections as Johnson. The Tide’s results on the court, though, have been the bigger surprise. Sitting at 7-3 with games against Jacksonville State and Norfolk State before conference play begins, Alabama looks poised to become a legitimate player in an SEC race that looks as open at the top as it has been in years. That’s not necessarily something many saw coming in the preseason.

Blowout losses to Xavier and Dayton in November exposed two big weaknesses: poor rebounding and ball control. Over those two games, the Tide turned the ball over 38 times and were destroyed (-29) on the glass. They were able to right the ship with a subsequent five-game winning streak that included victories over Wichita State (without point guard Fred VanVleet), Notre Dame and Clemson. But Johnson’s offense generally struggled and starting freshman point guard Dazon Ingram was lost for the season with a fractured left foot. There were still a number of questions about Alabama heading into Monday’s game against Oregon in Birmingham. And although the Tide blew a 12-point halftime lead to lose a close contest to a team that has become a fixture in the NCAA Tournament, their effort against the Ducks nevertheless showed that they are not a fluke.

Oregon provided a huge pre-conference test because it rebounds well and thrives on turning teams over. Alabama made strides in both of its areas of weakness, turning the ball over a reasonable 14 times and losing the battle on the glass by just five rebounds. Those aren’t ideal figures, but they are improvements that will allow their pesky, trapping defense (which held Oregon to just 32.1 percent shooting in the first half) to keep them in a lot of games. Johnson’s often-flat offense also showed signs of life in the loss, primarily in the first half. “Alabama just kicked us in the first half. [They] got whatever they wanted offensively,” Dana Altman said after the game. This too is a marked improvement, as Alabama, for example, slogged through its wins over Clemson and Southern Miss.

So far, so good for Avery Johnson down in Alabama. (USA TODAY Sports)

So far, so good for Avery Johnson down in Alabama. (USA TODAY Sports)

Alabama stuck around despite getting very little from Retin Obasohan, its best scorer this year. Instead a pair of sophomores whose continued offensive development is key, led the way. Justin Coleman had a career-high 24 points and forward Riley Norris chipped in 12 points of his own. Norris, a good shooter, is especially intriguing as an offensive option. He showed good vision, particularly on a dump-off to Michael Kessens under the basket, and was able to periodically exploit the attention on his three-point shooting ability to get to the rim.

Johnson can’t feel good about losing a game in which his team had such a big advantage, but he said he’s proud of his team after the game. He should also be excited about the possibilities that this developing group may afford him this season. Nothing is a given in the SEC this year — Kentucky’s loss to Ohio State and Texas A&M’s beating at Arizona State are but just two examples. Alabama has already proven it can compete with quality competition and it has plenty of upside with players like Coleman and Norris coming into their own. Whether they can bring it consistently and break through against some of the better teams in the SEC remains an open question, but it’s shaping up to a very successful inaugural season for Johnson and a team of which little was expected.

Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) (231 Posts)

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