This was volatility writ large, and it ended on a vertiginous downswing. The Tide lost their last four games of the season, including to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament and to Notre Dame, a First Four entrant, in the NCAA Tournament.
Nineteen wins and a No. 6 seed are nothing to be ashamed of for a program that, prior to 2021, played in two NCAA Tournaments over a 14-year period. But it’s easy to understand why Alabama fans got queasy on the roller coaster. For better or worse, this team will sport a new look come the fall. Three of the Tide’s top four scorers graduated or entered the NBA Draft, and five other reserves transferred out. They have been replaced by seven newcomers — four freshmen, two transfers, and one junior college transfer — who comprise what is arguably the best recruiting class in school history.
So it is that coach Nate Oats heads into his fourth year in Tuscaloosa with a roster that is retooled and refurbished, and hopefully poised for a rebound. The Tide will get a head start on that process during an exhibition trip to France and Spain next month. The best part about taking a team on a foreign trip is that it comes with 10 days of practice. Oats likes what he has seen in those workouts so far, but he also acknowledges that there is much work to do.
There is no doubt that Alabama will be talented next season. But will it be consistent? That depends on how well it answers five pressing questions.
1. Will the defense be better?
Or more to the point, not as awful? Last year, the Tide ranked 92nd in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. They were dominated on the glass (272nd in defensive rebound percentage), fouled too much (288th in defensive free-throw rate), failed to disrupt opposing ballhandlers (142nd in steals percentage) and gave up way too many points (78.1 per game in SEC play, which ranked 13th in the conference.) Besides that, the D was aces. “We were talented enough offensively to win the games we did,” Oats says. “But when you’re as bad as we were defensively, you don’t give yourself much of a chance to win.”
The primary issue was an overall lack of size. Often, Oats found himself deploying a lineup that went 6-foot-1, 6-3, 6-3, 6-6 and 6-8. “It’s hard to be good on defense when you’re that small,” he says. That won’t be the case this winter thanks to the arrival of two sturdy freshmen, 6-3 point guard Jaden Bradley and 6-9 forward Brandon Miller, as well as 6-5 super senior guard Dominick Welch, who transferred from St. Bonaventure.
Oats is also counting on added strength and continued progress from 7-foot sophomore center Charles Bediako. Last season, he ranked fifth in the SEC in blocks (1.6) while averaging 4.5 rebounds in conference games, but he had a hard time guarding physical post players and only played 17.8 minutes per game. Oats says Bediako has put on 20 pounds of muscle since the end of the season which, along with his continued adjustment to the speed of the college game, should make him a better interior defender and able to play for longer stretches. Ditto for 6-8 super senior forward Noah Gurley, who averaged 3.5 rebounds in 18 minutes last season after transferring from Furman.
Nick Pringle, a 6-9 forward from Dodge City Community College, will serve as Bediako’s backup. He got to campus later than the others because he was still finishing up his schoolwork, so Oats has only recently gotten his first extended look at him. “He had some good games in junior college, but he wasn’t great in every game,” Oats says. “He’s super athletic, but I need to see how skilled he is. Then the question is how quickly he’s going to pick everything up.”
2. Will the 3-point shooting be any better?
Oats came to Tuscaloosa promising to bring the NBA-style, 3-happy offense he had deployed to such great success at Buffalo. Last year’s team followed that template in hoisting 29.9 3-point attempts per game, the eighth-most in the country. Unfortunately, the Tide ranked 307th nationally in 3-point percentage at 30.9. That included some ghastly performances like the 3-of-30 clank fest in a home loss to Kentucky. All too often this team called to mind the words often spoken by legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith: “I don’t need outside shooters, I need outside makers.”
When the season ended, Oats decided he needed the same thing. “When we were looking at the (transfer) portal, that was our biggest emphasis — really, our only emphasis,” he says. As a result, he landed two players who should help in Welch and Mark Sears, a 6-1 junior guard from Ohio.
Sears hails from Muscle Shoals, Ala., but he was passed over by the Tide (and most every other high-major school) because he was an undersized two guard who couldn’t shoot. He made only 27.9 percent from behind the arc as a freshman at Ohio, but after leading the MAC in scoring last season at 19.6 points per game on 40.8 percent 3-point shooting, he entered the portal and found himself in high demand. “We screwed up when we passed on him out of high school, because he was definitely good enough,” Oats says. “But sometimes it’s not the worst thing to start off at a lower level and gain a ton of confidence. This summer he has been shooting better than anyone on the team, but he can also play the point.”
During his four years at St. Bonaventure, Welch converted 37.4 percent of his 3-point attempts, and Oats is counting on him to continue making long balls at that clip. It’s also important that 6-1 senior guard Jahvon Quinerly regains the form he showed as a redshirt sophomore, when he shot 43.3 percent from 3 and 50 percent in SEC games. Quinerly’s percentage from deep plummeted to 28.1 percent last season, and he seemed so lost at times that Oats briefly took him out of the starting lineup in January in hopes of lighting a spark. Quinerly’s season ended with a torn ACL suffered in the opening minutes of the NCAA Tournament loss to Notre Dame.
The mystery man in this mix is 6-4 sophomore guard Nimari Burnett. Three years ago, he was a highly-touted McDonald’s All-American from Chicago, but he transferred out of Texas Tech just 12 games into his freshman season, during which he averaged 5.3 points in 17.7 minutes. Burnett tore his ACL last September and missed the season. He is physically recovered and cleared to practice, but Oats has noticed in summer workouts that Burnett still shows some hesitancy when attacking the rim. If Burnett regains his confidence — and his shooting stroke — he could earn significant minutes. “He shot it well before his tore his ACL last year, and he’s shot it really well so far this summer,” Oats says. “We’re hoping that continues.”
Oats also hopes that Gurley rediscovers the touch he showed at Furman, where he shot 40.7 percent from 3 as a sophomore. He converted only 25.4 percent last season. Darius Miles, a 6-6 junior forward, showed a similar decline, making 29.4 percent from 3 last season after making 35 percent as a freshman.
It would be nice if the Tide could throw it into the post when the 3s aren’t falling, but the team’s two centers, Bediako and Gurley, are not efficient back-to-the-basket scorers. So Oats plans to use space and quickness to allow his guys to get into the paint as cutters. That worked pretty well last year as Alabama was ranked 12th in the country in two-point percentage (55.9) and 16th in adjusted offensive efficiency. Still, this offense is predicated first and foremost on the 3-ball. If the Tide’s outside shooters aren’t outside makers, it will be another long season.
3. When will the freshmen be ready?
Bradley and Miller are two of the highest-rated recruits in program history. Heading into the season, they are not only projected starters, but they will be called upon to carry a heavy load out of the gate. That’s especially concerning given that Bradley is still working his way back from foot surgery in March. He wasn’t fully cleared for practice until the second week of July and will be on a minutes restriction during the overseas trip.
Though Oats concedes “it’s proven in college basketball that freshmen take a little longer,” he is bullish on this duo’s ability to make a quick transition. “Jaden’s body is not a typical freshman body,” he says. “He’s big, strong, tough and physical. He’s also super smart.” As for Miller, Oats says that in summer workouts he’s “playing at a veteran’s pace. The game slows down for him.” Oats hopes Miller will give his team a dynamic presence at the four that Herb Jones and Jeremy Harris did at Alabama and Buffalo, respectively. “We’ve always had a good, long, athletic wing that’s a mismatch nightmare,” he says.
The team’s other two freshmen will also have the chance to crack the rotation, for different reasons. Rylan Griffen is a 6-5 guard from Dallas who can knock down shots. Noah Clowney is a rangy 6-10 forward from South Carolina who has the potential to guard multiple positions. Normally, a coach would like to have the luxury of bringing Griffen and Clowney along slowly, but on this team, Oats may have no choice but to force-feed them minutes. If they can handle it, it will make a big difference.
4. When will Quinerly come back, and how effective will he be?
OK, so that’s two questions, but their answers will go a long way toward determining this team’s fate.
The original timetable for Quinerly’s return was early February, but he has made such quick progress that Oats thinks he might be back in action by the end of December. “It would be nice to get him some nonconference games,” Oats says. “You don’t want to just throw him out there after the league starts.”
The sooner Quinerly is back, the better, because it will probably take several weeks for him to get in sync with his new teammates. It’s especially important that he and Bradley get used to playing together. That’s easier said than done given that both are most effective with the ball in their hands. That tension will hopefully be solved by Oats’ offense, which relies heavily on a ball movement and cutting away from the ball. “Those guys want to play in the NBA, and there are not many ball-dominant guard offenses in the league anymore,” he says.
The bottom line is, Alabama can ill afford to have Quinerly perform the way he did last winter. “He needs to get back to where he was playing two years ago,” Oats says. “Having Bradley and Sears around to take the pressure off will hopefully help him do that.”
5. Who’s going to lead?
There was a clear leadership void on this team last season. Oats has a major challenge in finding to find someone to fill it.
The first choice would be Quinerly, but he has been lacking in this department in the past, and the delay stemming from his injury is not helping. Beyond him, there are only three players on this roster who have suited up for Alabama. Could it be possible that one of the newcomers emerges as the alpha male in the locker room?
Oats harkens back to the leadership that was provided two seasons ago by Jordan Bruner, a 6-10 senior grad transfer from Yale. Bruner’s willingness to step into that role brought out the leader in Jones, who went on to become SEC player of the year and lead the Tide to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a spot in the Sweet 16. The 2022-23 version of that would be Welch, who started 105 games in four years at St. Bonaventure. Perhaps if Welch becomes a force in the locker room, then Gurley will see fit to do the same, and Quinerly will follow suit.
That’s one of several best-case scenarios that are in the embryonic stage as the Tide embarks on its overseas trip. When the 2022-23 season tips off, Alabama will be a borderline Top 25 team. From there, the Tide could go up a lot, or down a lot, or both. Either way, this team is headed for another interesting ride.
(Top photo of Charles Bediako: Jordan Prather / USA Today)