Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Annual Season Wrap and State of the Program Manifesto

First, a couple of recent news items.

1) Collin Sexton held a press conference and declared for the NBA Draft.
2) Greg Byrne confirmed that we have hired a firm to evaluate options of renovating Coleman Coliseum or building a new facility.  While nothing has been decided yet, he indicates they are leaning toward a large scale renovation. (I'll have much more on this later)
3) Riley Norris announced he will take advantage of his medical redshirt and return for another season.

Make yourself comfortable and join me after the jump...

First, I want to dedicate a significant portion of this to Collin Sexton.  I'm sure most of you have read the garbage hit-piece that some Josh Goodman hack posted to al.com.  If you haven't, too bad, because I'm not linking it here.  I will just say that he could not be more off-base, and this piece will basically be the antithesis of his drivel.

I will admit that I had a lot of concerns about Sexton in the preseason.  While it was exciting to anticipate an NBA lottery level player suiting up for the Tide, I worried about him putting himself and his NBA career above the team.  I was afraid his reputation of trash-talking antics would be a distraction and liability on the court at the least, or would lead to actions that would embarrass our program and University at the worst.  I had NCAA compliance concerns given his brother's marketing of the "Young Bull" brand, and his involvement with Coach Baker in the FBI investigation.  (As a side note, our compliance department deserves a TON of credit for how they investigated and handled both of those situations).  All of those concerns proved to be unfounded.

By all accounts Collin was a great teammate.  Even when he wasn't in the game he was engaged and encouraging/coaching his teammates.  He won the hearts of the nation when he almost single-handedly brought us back in a game we played at a 3 on 5 disadvantage.  I can't think of a single game that he didn't play with 100% intensity.  Without his heroics in the SEC tournament, this season recap and future outlook below would have a very different tone.

While several other players announced immediately after their final game, Collin took time to consider his options.  He maintained a 4.0 GPA in Business Administration while he was here.  I wonder how many one and dones at other schools even bother to attend class more than just enough to stay eligible?  Collin is a rare, extremely focused, driven individual who gives everything he has to whatever he does.  I dare say he shares a lot of the same characteristics as one Coach Nick Saban.

Instead of making his announcement about himself, he involved his teammates, further drawing positive attention to our program.  He thanked everyone at the University, and in particular Coach Johnson.  He released the classy statement above.  Nobody should fault him for leaving, it would be foolish for him to return.  While he won't be on the floor helping us next year, the way he played this year and the way he left will help us in recruiting.

Up until now Coach Johnson has been selling hope.  Thanks to Collin Sexton, he can sell results.  Yes, you can come to Alabama and play in the NCAA tournament.  Yes, you can come to Alabama and win games in that tournament.  And more importantly, yes, you can come to Alabama and be drafted high in the NBA.  The better his NBA career, the more it will help us.

Collin Sexton, I'm sorry I was ever skeptical of you.  Thank you for honoring your commitment and coming to Alabama when you could have left us for any other blue blood.  Thank you for representing our University in such a positive way.  Thank you for competing like a champion every night and being so much fun to watch.  Thank you for making the right career decision for yourself, but doing so in a way that will help our program in the future.  When we cut down the nets and go to the Final Four one day, you will be a part of the reason why.

I REALLY hope Young Bull grows up to be a Chicago Bull, but if not, I will have a new second favorite NBA team.

Season Recap

It was an up and down, roller coaster season that ultimately ended with our first tournament appearance in six years, and our first tournament win in over a decade.  That has to be considered a success by any measure, and the program continues to build momentum.

On the positive side, we won 20 games against a top 5 schedule with one of the 5 youngest teams in basketball.  We overcame a number of injuries, especially early in the season, including losing Riley Norris and Armond Davis for the year.  Braxton Key missed significant time and never seemed to get back to 100%.  Sexton battled an abdominal issue and , Donta Hall suffered a fractured wrist, and both Dazon and Herb missed time due to illnesses.  We had a solid record against the top 25 and other tournament teams.  

On the other hand, Coach Johnson hyped this season from day one, and if Collin Sexton does not make a runner at the buzzer in St. Louis against the Aggies, we are bemoaning yet another NIT appearance now.  We had too many games where we were not competitive, got blown out, and appeared disinterested.  It took way too long to settle on a rotation, and we ended the regular season on a losing streak that nearly derailed the season.  

All is well that ends well, but there is plenty of cause for both optimism and concern at this point.

Next Year and Beyond

We may be slightly less talented next year, but we will be much more experienced.  We lost Collin Sexton, but I would not be surprised to see break out years from Petty and Herb.  Tevin Mack figures to take over some of the scoring we will lose, and incoming freshman Jared Butler is more of a true point guard and he is expected to contribute significantly.  Donta Hall improved drastically and Galin Smith was showing potential by the end of the season.  Pelphrey has been a great addition to the coaching staff and I hope we can keep him around, but I suspect he will be looking to take a head job in the near future.  

Beyond next year, the 2019 recruiting class is shaping up to be a critical piece for the future of our program.  We are reportedly in the running, if not favorites, for both Trendon Watford and Kira Lewis, both elite, in-state prospects.  It's important that we have another respectable season in 2018-19 so we can fight off the blue bloods and other improving SEC schools.  

There will be transfers, that's just the nature of the college game in this day and age.  I would love to see everyone stick around, but I doubt that will be the case.  There's been some speculation about Braxton Key and Dan Giddens, as neither were present for Collin's announcement.  I think Key takes a lot of unfair criticism from the fan base.  I will admit, it does seem that he and Collin were often not on the same page, but it had to be somewhat jarring for Key to go from being the main leader on the floor last season to an (often injured) role player when the lottery pick joined the squad.  With Collin gone, Key may see this as an opportunity to regain his old role.  I spoke with Key's father at the NCAA tournament, and he definitely made it seem as though they are planning on Braxton returning, but I'm not positive the entire family is on board with that line of thinking.  He also plays at a position where we have a ton of depth.  As for Dan, he started the year in the conversation with Donta for a starting spot, but Donta obviously separated himself and Dan was seemingly passed by Galin on the depth chart for the post season.  He would be a logical one to keep an eye on, but he also has the physical tools to contribute, and I'm not sure if he would want to sit out yet another year at this point.  

I think it's important to remember that Coach Johnson is still learning the college game as well.  He does a lot of things well.  His recruiting has been good, and his promotion of the program has been great.  Nevertheless, his seat would be a bit toasty right now if Collin doesn't drag us into the tournament.  I think CAJ is a pretty good X's and O's coach, but there are 3 things he needs to fix to have a long, successful career here:  1) Learn how to find a rotation sooner in the season, 2) Learn how to motivate college players on a consistent basis, and 3) Identify and fix whatever issue is causing late season collapses every year (I suspect 2 and 3 are highly inter-related).  If he doesn't fix these things, last year is as good as it's ever going to get for him.  I'm optimistic that he will improve in these areas.  He's smart, focused, and dedicated, and he's not going to stop working to improve himself.

An even bigger reason to be optimistic about the long term future of the program is the man leading our athletic department.  Greg Byrne knows basketball and truly cares about it.  I hardly ever saw our previous athletic directors at away games, I saw Byrne at nearly every game I went to, home and away.  I've been saying for years that Coleman is a big issue, and it apparently is finally being addressed.  This sends the message to recruits that we are finally investing in our basketball program.  Personally, I would prefer the option of totally rebuilding, but my understanding is they could save significant money by just keeping the outer walls.  I'm willing to be open-minded and give it a shot.  

Finally, as college basketball fans, we are in uncertain times.  There will almost certainly be changes to the one and done rule, and who knows what the fall-out will be from the FBI investigations.  Regardless, having the right leadership in place and investing in state-of-the-art facilities puts us in the best position to adapt and take advantage of whatever new environment we may find ourselves in, and we appear to be doing just that.

Thank you all for posting, reading, and commenting here, and thanks again to Bobbyjack for inviting me to write here however many years ago it's been now.  We don't always agree on everything, but I know we are all passionate about Alabama basketball, and I find the level of knowledge and discourse here far superior to the few other options out there.  Enjoy the offseason!  We should have recruiting, construction, and scheduling news to look forward to in the not too distant future.

Roll Tide!  #Buckleup

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