| MBB/WBB 2021 - '22 Alabama basketball preview. - Season opens Nov. 9th with Louisiana Tech

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Touchdown Club
JD Davison and Keon Ellis could be Alabama’s next big stars — and help the Tide remain a national contender

As Nate Oats puts it, neither he nor his players are particularly interested in talking about last year. The reluctance stems from the ending — an unexpected want-to-have-it-back Sweet 16 loss to UCLA — but creates an odd dichotomy. Regardless of how it ended, 2020-21 was nevertheless the most successful season of Alabama men’s basketball in roughly 20 years, dating back to the early days of Mark Gottfried’s (ultimately ill-fated) tenure.

Last year’s Tide won a share of the SEC regular-season title for the first time since 2002, claimed the SEC tournament championship for the first time since 1991 and posted the program’s highest final rating in the KenPom era by a significant margin, finishing No. 9 nationally, well ahead of the 2005 team’s No. 18 final rating. Alabama’s record of 26-7 overall and 16-2 in the league was a monumental achievement in the broader scope of a program perpetually in football’s shadow. In Year 2 under Oats, Alabama’s No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament matched the highest in school history.

And yet, “I don’t think these guys like it if you bring up last year,” Oats says.

That game against UCLA, an 88-78 overtime loss, looms like low clouds. The Tide went 7-of-28 on 3s and 11-of-25 from the free-throw line to fall short of making only the second Elite Eight in program history.

“We feel like we were as good as those teams that played in the Final Four,” says Oats, leaning forward to look into the camera during a recent Zoom interview, making digital eye contact and nodding.

They were. And in the big picture, those two hours somewhat distort what otherwise is a process that’s jarringly ahead of schedule. Oats’ first team at Alabama, in 2019-20, finished 16-15 overall and 8-10 in the SEC. His second team was good enough to reach the Final Four. Entering 2021-22, the Tide are a preseason top 20 team despite losing four starters, including two NBA Draft picks, and a key reserve. They’re recruiting and landing five-star talent and are a contender to repeat in a wide-open SEC race. This happened relatively overnight for a program that prior to Oats reached only two NCAA Tournaments between 2007 and 2019. Oats’ two predecessors, Anthony Grant (2010-2015) and Avery Johnson (2016-2019), made one NCAA appearance apiece.

In such context, you have to laugh when hearing Oats temper expectations for this season, saying: “We could have a really good year and not repeat what we were able to do last year — those championships. But think we have a chance to be pretty good. I think we have a chance to compete for a championship. I think we’re going to be in the mix. I think we’re an NCAA Tournament team.”

This is the new normal is Tuscaloosa.

The big question
Preseason expectations around Alabama are high despite the stark reality that Oats’ team loses Herb Jones, the 2021 SEC Player of the Year; John Petty, a first-team All-SEC guard and school record-holder for made 3s (311); Josh Primo, a 6-foot-6 wing selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the No. 12 pick in the NBA Draft lottery because of his shooting, length and limitless upside; Jordan Bruner, a starting veteran center; and Alex Reese, the veteran forward (36 starts in 124 games at Bama) who sank the game-tying buzzer-beater 3 to send that Sweet 16 game against UCLA into overtime.

Can this program realistically lose all that and remain atop the SEC standings? And is there a clear leader in trying to do so? In total, those significant departures are onerous. When it comes to a program pillar, you don’t simply replace Jones. He was one of the best two-way players in the college basketball last year.

So who does this fall on? And who does everyone look to and listen to?

On this, Oats, who usually isn’t one to slow down — whether it’s his offense, his work ethic or his maundering — pauses for a silent moment. He doesn’t answer, as much as he thinks aloud.

“Well,” he begins, “you’d like for your point guard to be that voice on the team. And at times, Jahvon is the guy. He’s trying.”

That’d be Jahvon Quinerly, a 6-1 junior. And yes, in theory, he’ll have both hands on the wheel. At the same time, he started seven of 30 games last season, his first in uniform at Alabama, and can sometimes be prone to distraction or default to being the strong-silent type.

“I think his overall leadership of the team is where (Quinerly) has to make the biggest improvement,” Oats says. “Can you get guys to play hard with you? Can you get everyone on the same page? Are guys going to follow you? Do they respect your work ethic enough? That’s the biggest jump for him.”

So Oats keeps thinking.

“But Shackelford has a voice, and he’s been with us the longest, played the most games, and was our leading scorer last year,” he continues. “Maybe it’s him.”

That’s Jaden Shackelford, a 2021 second team All-SEC selection who averaged 14 points per game. He’s a volume 3-point shooter with range and a quick trigger. He considered entering the NBA Draft last season, but opted to return to college ball. It was great news for Alabama, but Shackelford then unexpectedly entered the transfer portal. That led to Oats taking multiple trips to California to visit with Shackelford to re-recruit him back to Tuscaloosa. Oats promised the 6-3 guard more opportunities in ball screens to help his NBA stock. Shackelford ended up considering Ohio State, Oklahoma and Texas Tech as potential transfer destinations, but ultimately decided to head back to Alabama.

“There’s also Noah,” Oats continues.

Right, yes, Noah Gurley is one of the oldest scholarship players on the roster. But can this team’s leader be an up-transfer in his first year in the program? Gurley arrived this summer after a standout career at Furman in the Southern Conference. He’s a college graduate with 88 career games played over three seasons, but he’s been navigating some preseason shooting struggles since moving up to Alabama.

“It helps your voice as a leader when you’re playing well,” Oats says, “but I think he’s going to come around.”

Oats keeps going. He mentions Darius Miles, a 6-6 sophomore, who “speaks up in the locker room.” He mentions senior wing Keon Ellis as “a guy who’s got no problem speaking up, but is not going to walk into the room thinking, ‘This is my team.’ But when he speaks, people listen, I think.” Still working things out in his mind, Oats also mentions star freshman JD Davison, who “doesn’t say much, and is a quiet kid, but is so talented.”

So maybe the question is, does Alabama have a multitude of leaders? Or no leaders?

Can point guard Jahvon Quinerly take over a leadership role for the Crimson Tide? (Marvin Gentry / USA Today)
Roster analysis
Guards: Let’s start with JD Davison, get him out of the way, because he’s all anyone wants to talk about. Have you seen this young man? If not, pull up your iCal and add Alabama’s Nov. 9 season opener against Louisiana Tech (SEC Network) to your schedule. Not to put undue pressure on the freshman, but consider this a guar-an-tee that Davison does something spectacular.

Some background: The 6-3, 175-pound freshman is from tiny Letohatchee, Ala., a town of about 1,000 people 25 miles south of Montgomery. He’s a scoring phenom (2,709 points at Calhouse High School, including 32.4 points per game as a senior), a YouTube sensation and comes to Alabama as the No. 2-ranked point guard in the 2021 recruiting class behind Kennedy Chandler (Tennessee).

There are not enough adjectives to describe Davison’s game, but Oats tries: “Freakish athlete. Explosive.” Yeah, that doesn’t do it. Saying Davison is athletic is like saying Zach Edey is tall. When it comes to running and jumping and dunking, think of Davison as a version of Ja Morant or Russell Westbrook, in terms of that spontaneous ability to rise above the rim and dunk with both the grace of a matador and the violence of a bull. That’s Davison. His highlights are outrageous.

“He’s up in the air forever,” Oats says.

But now it’s time for Davison to learn to be a college point guard. And that’s a process he can’t jump over. Oats says Davison is still working on becoming more comfortable on offense and improving his repertoire out of ball screens, but he’s made major early inroads on the other end of the floor. As Oats puts it, “he has the physical ability to be an unbelievable defender.”

What will be fascinating to see unfold is how Davison blends into Alabama’s system, which spaces out opposing defenses to the extreme and allows for guards to attack in isolation. Oats will play three and four guards at a time with this roster, and at times send Davison out there alongside Jahvon Quinerly and Jaden Shackelford. It’s difficult to imagine many opposing defenses having the horses to hang with that. Also, the possibility of some guard-to-guard backdoor lobs, à la Allen Iverson to Larry Hughes back in the day, is mouthwatering. Oats says he plans on getting creative.

“(Davison) has exceeded expectations and is getting more comfortable every day, so us three being on the court together — it’s fun,” Shackelford says. “Everyday we’re jelling.”

While Davison and Quinerly will operate as quasi co-point guards, Shackelford will retain his role as a scoring off-guard. The goal, though, is to expand that. Herb Jones was Alabama’s second-highest usage pick-and-roll option last year, so the role is available. The task for Shackelford will be to prove he can be creator and decision-maker, not merely a shooter. “Fact is,” Oats says, “he’s wired to score.” So when re-recruiting Shackelford out of the transfer portal, Oats’ pitch was a promise to allot Schackelford the freedom to do more.

“Having him play with the ball in his hands more, being a playmaker, being in some pick-and-rolls,” Oats says.

Time will tell how that works out. Shackelford will also look to improve his 3-point shooting from last season after going 28-for-97 (.289) in SEC play.

Quinerly is the closest thing to a key piece in Alabama replicating its 2021 offense, a unit that ranked second among SEC teams in efficiency in league play (1.07 points per possession) and led the conference in 3-point shooting (37.8 percent) and pace (76.8 possessions per game). The 6-1 point guard is tailor-made for Oats’ system. He attacks off the dribble, thrives in isolation and stretches out opposing defenses with his range. He led last year’s team in 3-point shooting percentage (43.3 percent, 52-of-120) and was second in scoring (12.9 points per game) and assists (3.2 assists per game).

All of that came in a complementary role, though. Quinerly served as the Tide’s sixth man last year, ranking fourth among Bama players with 25.1 minutes per game played. It was a perfect role and a major reason for the Tide’s success. Quinerly was a part of the puzzle and thrived most toward the end of the season. In a home stretch that saw Alabama win 11 of its final 13 games, Quinerly averaged 15.2 points on 2.3 made 3s per game at a 47.6 percent clip, and gave out 3.5 assists per contest. He earned the SEC tournament’s Most Outstanding Player honors.

Now Oats is asking Quinerly to do the same, but as a starter and team leader.

“Last year we were able to bring him off the bench and it was like, if he plays great — great! But now he’s kind of got to be that guy,” Oats says. “The team is going to have to rely on him to create offense for us and make everyone around him better. There were some inconsistencies with him last year. We can’t afford for him to be inconsistent this year. Every game, he has to be good.”

Alabama is banking on Quinerly not shying away from such pressure.

While it initially looked like Oats’ backcourt was going to be even more loaded than it already is, which is saying something, transfer guard Nimari Burnett will miss the season after tearing his ACL over the summer. The Texas Tech transfer guard should figure in the Tide’s future backcourt plans, especially if there’s an overhaul after next spring’s NBA Draft entry period. When healthy, the former McDonald’s All-American fits the bill — 6-5, a 6-10 wingspan, an athletic three-level scorer with great length on the defensive end.

Wings: This is surely shocking, but Oats has a whole slew of long, rangy athletes that will be unleashed in all varieties of roles, rotations and defensive assignments.

The name worth knowing and remembering is Keon Ellis. As an overall player, he’s not Herb Jones, but he’s going to be a Jones-type defender for this team (that’s the same Jones who won SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors last year) and is, as Oats says, “Maybe our best player — definitely the best two-way player — on the team.”

So there’s that.

Much more on Ellis below.

Despite returning from a torn ACL in 2019-20, Juwan Gary, a 6-6 sophomore, was a majorly impactful defender off the bench last season and increased his role over the course of the season.

“He wasn’t overly skilled on offense, so he knew that if he was going to get on the floor for us — and we had a lot of good players — he had to figure out what he was going to bring,” Oats says. “So he brought rebounding and played super hard.”

Gary represents so much of what Alabama looks for while recruiting. He can check guards with his athleticism. He can defend bigs with his length. He can switch onto anyone. He can rebound. He can block shots. Alabama is always going to roll out a handful of these types as long as Oats is the coach.

As a sophomore, Gary will be used mostly as an undersized four and is “going to play a lot.”

Jusaun Holt, a 6-6 freshman, is the newest 3-and-D swingman on the roster. The four-star, top 100 recruit chose the Tide over Xavier, Wake Forest, Miami, Georgia and Washington, among others. Oats says he’s “got a real chance to play if he’s making shots and really buying into his role.”

A year ago, it was Darius Miles coming into the roster as a 6-6 freshman with a four-star rating. His play as a freshman was limited to 17 appearances and 4.2 minutes. This year will show if that was a byproduct of a clogged rotation or not. Oats says Miles has a chance to emerge for more playing time “if he figures it out.”

Bigs: If there’s a single trademark to this Alabama roster, it’s malleability. You want to go big? OK, Oats can also go big, or go small and stretch you out like saran wrap. You want to go small? OK, Bama can also go small and line up all its athletes across the perimeter, or it can go big and overwhelm you with size.

Diversity in the Tide’s frontcourt allows for such variety. While Oats typically uses rangy stretch bigs or undersized forwards to hold down the five position, this season he brings in freshman Charles Bediako, who is “unlike any big we’ve had here.” Bediako is massive — a 7-foot, 225-pound Canadian ranked as the No. 4 center in the 2021 recruiting class, picking Alabama over Duke, Texas, Michigan and Ohio State. He is not a float-around-the-perimeter big man. He is a protect-the-rim-on-one-end, punish-the-rim-on-the-other-end big man. He’ll move block to block, and sprint baseline to baseline. He’ll set screens that defenders feel and dive to the basket looking for a dish and a dunk. Defensively, he’ll give the Tide the kind of physical presence it needs if it, say, runs into a Big Ten program with a true center operating on the blocks in the NCAA Tournament. Offensively, Bediako is a work in progress, but he’s going to be allowed to learn on the fly.

“Right now he can play in the pocket, he can play through the elbows, he can make some decent passes,” Oats says.

Noah Gurley, meanwhile, brings an entirely different look. The Furman transfer can be used as a small-ball, pick-and-pop five man or as a four alongside Bediako, suddenly giving Alabama an imposing frontline.

Oats didn’t hesitate when Gurley came available in the portal during the offseason. He thought back to Alabama’s narrow 83-80 win over Furman last December, when the then-junior made 2-of-4 3s, scored 15 points and gave the Tide more than a few matchup problems. Oats remembers, “Well, we just couldn’t guard him,” and shrugs his shoulder, “so …”

Gurley averaged 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists at Furman. At Alabama, he’s still adjusting to a much less structured system than he operated in under former coach Bob Richey. At Furman, it was fairly defined when to catch-pass-shoot. Under Oats, the system is far more free-flowing and decision-dependent. The preseason has seen some trial and error. Oats is convinced Gurley will figure things out and wants him to evolve and be less reliant on his jumper and more open to the idea of going off the bounce or backing his man down.

Noah Gurley gave Alabama problems last season a as visiting player from Furman. Then he transferred to Tuscaloosa. (Marvin Gentry / USA Today)
“He’s a shooter, but he’s got to start making shots, got to start playing a little more free,” Oats says. “If he can make shots at a high level, he’s going to be really good. For whatever reason, he’s struggled so far. Maybe it’s just getting used to the offense.”

There are ample reasons to believe this will work itself out. Gurley can play. He just needs to get comfortable.

Keon Ambrose-Hylton is a 6-8 sophomore who can work in that hybrid four man/undersized five role. He reminds Oats of Juwan Gary, except more athletic and “not as thick, but a little taller.” He can offer a different look from both Gurley and Bediako at the five and also play alongside either in a bigger package.

“We’re thinking of him to fill the off-the-bench energy role that Gary delivered last season,” Oats says.

Alex Tchikou missed last season after tearing an ACL, but he is an enticing talent. The 6-11 center arrived in the U.S. at age 16 from Paris and immediately drew high-major recruiting interest from the likes of Arizona, Florida State, Illinois and plenty others. Tchikou is the modern long big, out there switching screens onto multiple positions, putting up the occasional 3 and even Euro-stepping with the ball in his hands. There’s a learning curve, but Tchikou has a high ceiling. It’s not yet clear how close to it he’ll scratch in his first full season of college ball, but he’s worth keeping an eye on, especially with James Rojas out of the rotation to start the year.

Rojas appeared in 30 games last season, including a 15-point, seven-rebound performance against Florida. The 6-8 forward is the type of player who demands playing time by sheer will. He dives on the floor and runs through walls. He drew eight fouls in that game against Florida. However, Rojas is starting 2021-22 on the sideline after tearing his left ACL in June. There is hope he’ll return for SEC play, but even then, one imagines he’ll work his way back gradually. Once he’s 100 percent, though, there’s a place for Rojas in the rotation.

Spotlight on: Keon Ellis
Quinerly was recently asked about his selection to the preseason All-SEC team. He brushed aside the question, wasn’t having any of it. Instead he trained his eyes onto Ellis and pointed at the senior.

“I feel like Keon should’ve also been first team All-SEC,” Quinerly said. “He’s in for a big year, and not a lot of people are talking about him. He’s going to surprise a lot of people this year.”

You’re probably tempted to dismiss this as Teammate Talk. And why shouldn’t you? Ellis averaged 5.5 points and four points in 17.5 minutes per game. Who in the hell would vote Ellis to the All-SEC team?

Well, Oats might, that’s who.

“Look, he’s 6-5, he’s long, he shoots it, he guards his tail off, he plays hard, he makes all the right reads, he drives it,” Oats says. “I’m not kidding — he might be our best player. It just took him a little while to figure it out last year. I probably should’ve played him more, to be honest with you. This year he’s going to play a lot of minutes. He’s really good.”

Maybe this is just some grand misdirection concocted by Alabama basketball to convince us all — or to convince Ellis, himself — that this dude is the next big thing.

Or maybe it’s not. And maybe he’s legit. And maybe the NBA scout who recently sat in on an Alabama practice and told Oats that Ellis is the team’s best pro prospect isn’t also in the ruse.

Let’s consider that this is for real. Ellis is the type of off-guard that Oats (and every scout out there) loves — covering multiple positions on defense, and making 3s and attacking close-outs on offense. That’s what why Oats opted to insert Ellis into the starting lineup for last season’s final five games. He responded by averaging 7.4 points on 63.6 percent shooting, and added six rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks in 22.6 minutes per game.

It was a terrific end to Ellis’ first season at the D-I level. He came to Alabama as an NJCAA All-American from Florida SouthWestern State College. Now the door is open for him to take a massive step forward.

“I mean, I definitely think I’m underrated, but I don’t really trip on it,” Ellis says. “It’s whatever — I think with hard work it will come during the season. That’s fine with me. Last year with our team being so deep in various positions, I just didn’t really get to show much because we were so great. I just had to be ready when my name was called. I have to show more his year.”

Considering his believers, there’s reason to have faith.

Recruiting
Why is Alabama suddenly a national contender? Recruiting. The class of Davison-Bediako-Holt was ranked 14th in the country. Davison arrives as the program’s third-highest rated recruit since 2002, and its top prospect since Collin Sexton in 2017.

And there’s more top talent coming.

Oats currently holds a commitment from Jaden Bradley, a 6-3 five-star point guard out of IMG who committed in October after visiting Arizona, Florida State, Gonzaga and Michigan. Bradley averaged 17.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.1 assists on the Nike EYBL circuit over the summer.

That’s where the 2022 class currently stands, but the Tide are very much in the mix for Brandon Miller, a star 6-8 forward from Antioch, Tenn. Yet another five-star, Miller is a top 15 prospect in 2022 and is strongly considering the G League path. He also recently visited Kansas. Alabama, though, is right there in the mix.

Jarace Walker, Bradley’s roommate at IMG, is also considering the Tide, along with Auburn and Houston. Guess what, he’s also a 6-8, five-star, top 15 player in the class.

Miller’s commitment date is slated for Nov. 1. Walker goes on Nov. 4

Noah Clowney, a four-star 6-10 forward from Roebuck, S.C., visited Tuscaloosa over the weekend and is also scheduled to announce a commitment on Nov. 1. He’s considering Indiana, Virginia Tech, Florida and the Tide.

With Bradley, an elite passer and floor general, already in the fold, Oats’ next incoming class is trending toward being among the best in the country. This isn’t slowing down.

Schedule analysis
With a roster filled with new roles and emerging pieces, Oats and his staff have the luxury of easing into things with a November slate of home guarantee games against Louisiana Tech, South Dakota State, South Alabama and Oakland, before heading to the ESPN Events Invitational in Kissimmee, Fla., for games against Iona (hello, Rick Pitino!), then Belmont or Drake, and a third game. The other side of the bracket includes Kansas (yes, please), Miami, Dayton or North Texas.

Then things get very real. Alabama heads to Seattle to play Gonzaga in a primetime Saturday night matchup on Dec. 4, then hosts Houston the following Saturday (Dec. 11), before heading to Memphis on Dec. 14. Three straight games against teams with legitimate Final Four aspirations should show Oats, and everyone else, what the Tide is made of.

The non-conference slate wraps with Jacksonville State and a game against preseason Mountain West favorite Colorado State in Birmingham that will honor C.M. Newton.

The ceiling
Last year’s Alabama team got off to a slow start, losing to Stanford, Clemson and Western Kentucky among its first seven games. It was a mixture of culture issues and learning roles on the fly, according to Oats. This year’s schedule allows for more leeway early, before the real tests come. If the Tide can find their flow in those first few weeks, get rolling and pick off a few wins over some prime non-conference opponents, this is a group that could establish itself as a legitimate national title contender by the time conference play roles around. Then there’s no reason to think this team can’t compete for another SEC championship, snag a great seed line in the NCAA Tournament and make a run at the Final Four.

How’s that for ceiling?

It’s not a stretch. Guards still win in college basketball, and there are few better returning backcourts in the country than Quinerly and Shackelford. Now add Davison. Goodness. While Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and Duke’s Paolo Banchero get most the attention in the conversation for national freshman of the year, Davison could be a sneaky sleeper pick. It’s simple math: The space that Alabama’s offense creates + Davison’s attacking skillset = Murderball. Look out.

The beauty, though, is that Alabama’s identity will still exist on the defensive end. The Tide ranked third nationally a year ago, holding opponents to .878 points per possession, and yes, that started with the dynamic play of Jones, but plenty of pieces return that made that defense what it was. Ellis and Gary are about as good as you’ll find defensively, and the roster variety of rotations can fit any test that arises.

Offensively, Alabama’s evolution this season should be as interesting as any in the country.

“We give our guys a decent amount of freedom,” Oats says. “I think teams that are a lot more structured or robotic-like can be better earlier. With freedom, you really have to learn how to play with each other. But in the end, with the freedom we give ’em, it ends up being a lot better — you’re a lot harder to guard when you get it all figured out. It just takes a little longer when you’re asking guys to figure out roles on their own.”

The floor
Talent-wise, it’s tough to imagine Alabama taking too much of a dip. It sits among a pack of expected SEC title contenders, along with Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas, as Florida and Auburn lurk close behind. Maybe the Tide have chemistry issues. Or maybe the loss of Jones, Petty and Primo is too much to overcome. Maybe the question of leadership proves to be a season-long issue. Any combination could lead to a finish on the wrong side of the parity expected atop the league standings.

Final report
In terms of expected efficiency, Alabama opens the year at No. 19 on KenPom and No. 15 on BartTorvik.com. Both spots feel low and are testaments to this team’s unknowns, more than its talent.

Because the talent is there. And the Tide will go as far as it takes them.

It happened fast, but this is where Alabama now exists. A contender.

(Insert obligatory football comparison.)

“We need to establish ourselves as a program that’s going to be in that discussion every year — making the NCAA Tournament every year, recruiting at a high level every year,” Oats says. “We don’t want to be a flash in the pan. We can’t finish fifth in the country, and then you don’t hear from us for a year. No, it needs to be an every-year thing.”
 
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