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.
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.