This whole thing was built for Year 3. Now that it’s here, Avery Johnson’s reclamation project is on track for a breakout after two seasons in the middle of the SEC pack. Buoyed by a top-10 recruiting class — highlighted by potential 2018 top-five NBA Draft pick Collin Sexton — this is the Crimson Tide’s big opportunity.
Preseason rankings haven’t been in the discussion since 2011-12 — a year that started with promise before ending with a loss in the NCAA Tournament opener. That was the program’s last trip to the madness in March. Anything short of a return would be a disappointment after the offseason hype.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Avery Johnson
2016-17 RECORD (SEC): 19–15 (10–8)
2016-17 POSTSEASON: NIT: Lost to Richmond 71–64 in the first round
G Corban Collins (7.0 ppg, 1.5 apg)
F Shannon Hale (4.1 ppg, 1.5 rpg)
F Jimmie Taylor (5.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg)
This will be a big year for Donta Hall, a raw recruit when Johnson arrived in 2015 who has flashed potential in his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa. Now, with Jimmie Taylor graduated, the 6'9", 223-pound junior will have a tremendous opportunity. He’s been a force defensively — he blocked 48 shots a year ago — so adding more to his offensive game could bring some balance to what figures to be a backcourt-heavy scoring attack.
The addition of Ohio State transfer Daniel Giddens also figures to be an important piece up front. The 6'11" Georgia native had to sit out last season but drew strong reviews from Johnson this offseason. A former top-50 recruit, Giddens wasn’t a big part of the Buckeyes attack in 2015-16, averaging 3.8 points and 3.6 rebounds. Like the freshman class, he offers an element of the unknown.
The buzz surrounding Alabama’s program revolves around a deep group of versatile guards.
Braxton Key, the Tide’s leading scorer as a freshman, flirted with the NBA but opted to return. Key is one of the most versatile players in the SEC and would be the face of the program — if not for Sexton’s much-anticipated arrival.
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The highest-rated Alabama recruit in a generation, Sexton saw his stock rise even more on the postseason all-star circuit. The Georgia native brings a personality and unabashed confidence that will provide a much-needed jolt for this underachieving program. As a point guard, his ability to develop chemistry and timing with the rest of the team will be crucial. But Sexton isn’t just a distributor, as evidenced by his wins in the McDonald’s All-American dunk contest and the Marine’s Men’s 3-Point Championship. Johnson has spoken about attracting one-and-done talent, and that’s what he’s found in Sexton, who has the potential to be as dynamic as any player in the league.
John Petty, another top-30 recruit, is an athletic swingman who plays with great energy and excels in transition. He is also an outstanding rebounder for his size.
Dazon Ingram is a combo guard who will play major minutes. He averaged 10.6 points and 3.3 assists per game in his first full season with the team. Ingram isn’t a high-volume 3-point shooter, but he did connect on 42.9 percent of his 49 attempts last season. Avery Johnson Jr., the coach’s son, averaged 19.3 minutes per game but might see his playing time dip a bit due to the influx of talent.
After years in the middle of the SEC pack, this could be the most exciting season in at least a decade of Alabama basketball. With that comes the burden of expectations. An upgraded schedule that includes Arizona, Memphis, Texas, Oklahoma, BYU and Minnesota will put Johnson’s third team on an even bigger stage. The college basketball world will be watching to see if Alabama can be a serious basketball contender after years on the sideline.