Sunday, April 16, 2017

Final Thoughts on the 16-17 Season/Looking Ahead

It's a quiet Sunday here in the Msmilie castle so I thought I'd finally put down my final thoughts on the 16-17 season, look ahead to the critically important 17-18 season, and take an early look at the recruiting for this summer as well as future classes. This will be a long post so hit the break to continue reading.
In my opinion, the 16-17 season was ultimately a break-even type of season. There were no big non-conference wins like Avery's first season, and once again the team hit a speed bump down the stretch of the season when they were trying to build some momentum for the postseason. But the team did improve on its overall and conference win totals from Avery's first season, and played its best basketball of the season in Nashville at the SEC Tournament.

Coming into the season, the expectation was that older players on the roster (Nick King, Shannon Hale, Riley Norris, Jimmie Taylor, Corban Collins) would likely be integral to the team's success. That didn't happen. While Riley Norris had a very solid junior season, it was freshmen (Dazon Ingram and Braxton Key) who ultimately had to step up and produce for this team. Nick King never fully became involved thanks to a lung infection that sabotaged his season, Shannon Hale's career continued its sad downward slide, while the other upperclassmen lacked the talent, leadership, competitive edge or all of the above to lift the program to a higher level. The fact that the team was still able to win 19 wins due to this is a feather in the cap of the coaching staff.

Top 5 Best Games of the Season

1. vs South Carolina (SEC Tournament) - 64-53 - One would be inclined to put the first meeting between these teams at number one. After all, that was a 4-OT road win against a ranked team. But I didn't feel either team played particularly well in that game. This game was a much better game from a execution standpoint; and I liked that, like the first game, Alabama showed toughness late in a close game to get the win. A win that advanced them to the tournament semifinals for the first time in four years.

2. at South Carolina - 90-86 - The 4-OT win in Columbia was the lone win vs a ranked team for the season, and came at a crucial time following a bad 2-game losing streak in a blowout loss at Arkansas and a dispiriting home loss to Auburn.

3. Vanderbilt - 59-56 - Alabama overcame a 14-point 2nd half deficit to beat Vandy, a 2-0 start in conference play, and one of the few top 50 RPI wins the program enjoyed.

4. at Georgia - 80-60 - The team's 20-point win in Athens was one of the better overall performances of the season. One of the nine road/neutral wins the program had this past season.

5. Ole Miss - 70-55 - A home win over Ole Miss won't excite some fans very much, but this was one of the better all-around games the team played this season against a very solid Ole Miss team that ultimately won 22 games and finished the season in the NIT quarterfinals. It was also a win on Senior Night, something that didn't happen last season.

Top 5 Worst Games of the Season

1. Auburn - 77-82 - Anyone who follows this blog knows I don't think much of Bruce Pearl so to see him and his Auburn team come into Tuscaloosa and run circles around our guys was a real disappointment for me. It felt like the season may totally collapse after that game. It didn't, but the sweep by Auburn hovered for the remainder of the season.

2. vs Valparaiso (Las Vegas) - 60-68 - For those of you who made the trip and enjoy the creature comforts of Las Vegas, you probably found a way to enjoy yourself. The basketball sure didn't produce much enjoyment. Yes, Valparaiso was a solid team with a potential draft pick in Alec Peters, but these are the types of games a program from a power conference has to win if they're going to develop into a relevant program. The first round of games were broadcast on Youtube so this wasn't exactly a showcase for the program on a national stage. In order to get to the championship game, broadcast on ESPN2, Alabama needed to win this game. Unfortunately, the team didn't seem to be present mentally for the majority of both games, and were very fortunate to come home with a 1-1 record, after needing a late surge to beat a rebuilding Saint Louis team in the consolation game, also broadcast on Youtube.

3. Richmond (NIT) - 64-71 - Alabama came into the NIT playing some of its best basketball of the season, but flamed out at home in the first round vs Richmond. On one hand, the team couldn't match up well with the Spiders, who play a tricky, Princeton-type offense. On the other hand, the team didn't bring the same competitive edge they displayed in Nashville. And, honestly, the team wasn't very good at home this season with 6 of their 15 losses coming at Coleman. Perhaps the worst thing about this loss is that the way the bracket played out, Alabama would have had an opportunity to host three games in Tuscaloosa.

4. at Auburn - 64-84 - The first of two losses to the Tigers came at their place. This wasn't necessarily a surprise being a road game at a rival, but the fact that the game went from a close game to being a total butt-kicking was disappointing.

5. at Texas - 68-77 - I enjoyed hanging out with DJC prior to this game, and the 1st half was fun as Alabama built a 12-point halftime lead. Then the bottom fell out, with Texas scoring 50+ points in the 2nd half, and Shaka outcoaching Avery so badly I found myself overreacting about the direction of the program as I'm guilty of doing from time to time. Texas went on to have a very bad season so this was a bad loss that just stuck Alabama's resume like a pimple.

Now that I've closed the book on the 16-17 season, let's look ahead to the 17-18 season.

I can't remember the last time the expectations have been as high as they are for next season. The incoming freshman class - rated as one of the best in program history by the recruiting analysts - includes two 5 star players in Collin Sexton and John Petty, and three players in Alex Reese, Herb Jones and Galin Smith who could all develop into very good college basketball players in the years ahead. Jones in particular is considered by many to be an under-the-radar future star. Combine that with five of the top six scorers returning, and Alabama is already getting some preseason top 25 love from the national college basketball media. For me, twenty-five years of serious peaks and valleys as an Alabama fan has made me cautiously optimistic (a team that is going to lean heavily on freshmen and sophomores is not always the recipe for success), but looking at this team on paper, one can understand why the fanbase is hyped for next season. Once the roster is finalized later this summer, I'll do my usual player previews for the season ahead.

Speaking of the current roster, Corban Collins, Bola Olaniyan and Jimmie Taylor all exhausted their eligibility, as did Shannon Hale, who did not finish the season with the team after being suspended. In addition to those losses, three players - Nick King, Ar'Mond Davis and Brandon Austin - elected to transfer. Nick King will graduate this summer before heading to Middle Tennessee State, while the destinations for Ar'Mond and Brandon is not yet known. Both will likely have to sit out a year before resuming their college careers. 

On the recruiting front, things have picked up considerably under Avery Johnson; the incoming class is proof enough of that. But it's also important to remember that Braxton Key was a top 50 recruit coming out of high school. I'd say his presence so far has been beneficial to the program. Dazon and Donta, recruited by the previous staff but coached and developed from the beginning of their college careers by the current staff, may be future pros. And Avery has done a great job buttressing the roster with transfers in his first two seasons.

Graduation and transfers have led to Avery currently having two open scholarships for next season. His M.O. so far has been to fill all 13 spots, and I expect that we will see at least one of those two spots filled for this upcoming season. So far, no word on who the Alabama coaches may be targeting in the transfer pool. But at this point of the calendar year, if Avery is going to fill those two spots for next season, he's likely hoping to add grad transfers, similar to Corban and Bola this past season. If next season's team is missing anything, it's experience, something that grad transfers will bring in with them.

Looking ahead to 2018 and 2019. If the 17-18 team can have a breakthrough season, that should benefit the strong recruiting momentum we've seen so far for the coaching staff. The 2018 class is not expected to be as strong as the 17 class (not even close, actually), but there are a few guys that Avery and his staff have offered that are high on my wishlist.

1. Robert Woodard - A 6'6 220 lb wing, Woodard is a national top 50 recruit, currently projected as the top recruit in the state of Mississippi for 2018. Woodard is not only a highly rated basketball recruit, but he's a also a great student, in the National Honor Society with a 4.0 GPA. His father, Robert Woodard, Sr., did play college ball at Mississippi State so they are considered the early favorite, but I think Woodard's recruitment is wide open, and the staff appears to have made him a priority for the 2018 class.

2. Javian Fleming - A 6'9, 230 lb center from Canton, Mississippi, Fleming joins Woodard as the top targets for Avery and his staff in the 2018 class. Fleming has been a bit of a late bloomer, but his stock has rose in the last year with LSU, Auburn, Iowa State, Cincinnati and Ole Miss all making offers. But it's Alabama that I would think is the favorite for Fleming at this moment. Pettway, who has really blossomed into a dependable recruiter, is leading the recruitment of Fleming. Avery Johnson has also paid visits to Fleming. The staff obviously sees a lot in the young man, who averaged 16 points, 10 rebounds and just under 3 blocks this past season. Fleming will likely need some time to develop his skill set once he gets to the college level, but his profile should continue to rise throughout his senior season. Definitely one to keep an eye on.

For 2019, it's all about Trendon Watford, a 5 star from Mountain Brook who will likely be a top 10 recruit and top recruit in the state of Alabama once his high school career is complete. Schools from around the country will be looking to recruit him out of the state. 5 star basketball players don't grow on trees in Alabama so it is vital to the in-state programs that Watford remain at home. Yes, Collin Sexton and John Petty are huge recruits that may be instrumental in changing the direction of the Alabama basketball program, but Trendon Watford is the guy that will keep it rolling. I'll focus on other targets in the 2019 class in a future post.

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