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Why College Basketball's Next Great Program Could Be... Alabama?

Avery Johnson 
Few schools have the type of reputation and history as Alabama on the gridiron. Over their history, the Crimson Tide have claimed 16 National Championships, 29 conference titles and have produced some amazing NFL talent. They could only add to that total, as future Hall of Fame head coach Nick Saban continues to produce some mesmerizing teams, as this year's edition is 9-0 and clearly the favorite to repeat as National Champs. Compared to that, the basketball team has understandably been completely overshadowed. While many schools may end up looking forward to basketball season if they suffering through a rough Fall, basketball isn't really talked about in Tuscaloosca until late into January. However, things are changing quick on the Tide's campus. Under the tutelage of former NBA head coach Avery Johnson, the basketball program has a new life, dominating the recruiting trail and improving on the court. With what they are already accomplishing, the Crimson Tide have a chance to quickly become one of the sport's premier programs.

When the Tide made the NCAA Tournament in 2012 it was the first time the school had made it to the "Big Dance" since 2006 under former head coach Mark Gottfried, now at NC State. That showing was very short-lived, as the Tide were eliminated in the second round to Creighton. The next few years of the Anthony Grant era left them stalled in mediocrity. Alabama failed to do anything of note the next two seasons, and Grant was subsequently let go. The program seriously needed a shot of energy, and they got in the form of Avery Johnson. Johnson, a former NBA player himself who had achieved despite his short stature (5'10"), had built a very respectable resume as head coach of the Dallas Mavericks and New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets. He led the Mavs to plenty of wins from 2005-2008, and the Nets made solid improvements throughout his time there before they mortgaged their entire future on aging Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Joe Johnson. Johnson had returned to his post at ESPN before the Tide came calling, officially naming him their head coach on April 5, 2015. For both, it was an unexpected move. It was an aggressive and notable hire for the Tide, and for Johnson it was his first attempt at the collegiate level. How would we adjust to recruiting and coaching less experienced ball players? How would we manage the great differences between the NBA and college game? So far, Johnson has certainly answered many of those questions, and more.

Coming in just months before the 2015-2016 season, Johnson had to scramble to even field his first team. The Tide were undermanned in many areas, and Johnson's first recruiting class wasn't overly impressive, but did include long-time four-star commits Donta' Hall and Dazon Ingram, both from inside the state. On the court, the team had their moments, but consistency was a major issue. The Tide were very young overall, and Johnson brought in many things to the system that were far different from Grant. The Tide would end up going 18-15 overall, posting an 8-10 mark in the SEC, which was a very mediocre conference. By many standards, the season wasn't an overwhelming success, but a closer look indicates just how much improvement the Tide made in just a year. In the preseason, they were picked 13th in the 14-team league by the media, and suffered serious growing pains early, including a 32-point loss to Dayton. They quickly matured, and looked extremely competitive in SEC play, giving Kentucky a challenge before knocking off 19th-ranked South Carolina, their first loss of the season. They continued to improve and wound up in the NIT, a very strong showing for Johnson in his debut.

While the solid improvement from 2014-2015 to '15-'16, it was reasonable for many Alabama fans to be pretty excited about what Johnson could do. And that was before Johnson became a dominant run on the recruiting trail. Despite a late start on the 2016 recruiting cycle, Johnson still managed to reel in four-star Braxton Key from Virginia. Key was the only Alabama signing from the high school ranks, but he was a great one. The Oak Hill Academy alum has astounding athleticism and superb potential, he could immediately be the best player on the roster. Key's commitment in late October of 2015 was huge, but it was Johnson's commitments just this week that indicated what type of talent the coach was going to bring into Tuscaloosca. Five-star shooting guard Collin Sexton is a dynamic scorer who was considering many other college basketball powerhouses like UNC, Kansas and Villanova before eventually deciding on the Crimson Tide. His commitment was quickly followed by the addition of another five-star recruit, guard John Petty. Petty was also being highly sought after by some huge schools, but oped to stay in the state and commit to the Tide. The addition of four-star forward Alex Reese and three-star forward Herb Jones gives the Tide some more depth, and helps them earn themselves the No. 3 Class in the 2017 cycle to this point, setting only behind Arizona and Washington as of right now. Duke, Kentucky and others will add more, but Alabama could still very well keep that class in the Top 5, a huge deal for a program that doesn't quite have the tradition or history of many others in basketball.

The addition of Key, Sexton and Petty have increased the talent level in a big way in Alabama. But, that obviously doesn't guarantee anything. These are still 18 and 19-year young men and the adjustment to the faster and more athletic collegiate game can be tough for many. However, Johnson has proven time and time again he can connect to young guys and help them learn and grow. Johnson is also a great situational coach, something not often seen at the collegiate level, because of his experience with the NBA. He is great at drawing up the right plays late in games, and attacking the right mismatches, a key component to team's success. With that in mind, he should be able to find the right situations for his elite talent to achieve.

With the early improvement we've seen for the Tide under Johnson and the wonderful talent he is bringing into the school, it is very reasonable to be excited. Johnson has the knowledge, experience and pedigree to continue to help the program grow and compete and bring in some wonderful talent, particularly in a Southeast region loaded with potential stars. Patience will be key as Alabama continues to build and grow, but they could become an NCAA Tournament dark horse this season, after making the NIT in 2016. That could set the stage for a special 2017-2018 with Sexton, Petty, Reese and perhaps more coming in. With that groundwork laid, the potential and possibilities for this rising program could be endless in the near horizon.

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