NASHVILLE — When Alabama basketball began practice this summer, a pair of incoming freshmen proved to be a little too “boisterous” for coach Avery Johnson’s taste.
There was a missed cut, a turnover and some yelling. Then, a crucial moment of leadership from Johnson’s returning players.
“Relax,” sophomores Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram told the offending freshmen. “Just calm down.”
Key and Ingram, both All-SEC candidates, are two of several important returnees from a team that won 19 games and managed an admirable showing the SEC Tournament. Joining them is 5-star point guard Collin Sexton — the No. 5-rated recruit in the country, per 247 Sports — 4-star shooting guard John Petty and 4-star power forward Alex Reese.
Sexton and Petty both turned down Kentucky in favor of ‘Bama.
“We tried to get the guards they recruited, and they beat us on them,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said during the conference tournament last spring. “They’re really good players. The guys they have coming back — the size and the skill — I think they’re gonna be really good.”
In the words of Key, those highly recruited freshmen “are big time” and “well known around the world.” The contrast between them and the rest of the roster was clearly visible when Alabama went to Canada this August for a set of exhibition games. At one point, a group of “1,000 fans” began hounding Sexton and Petty for their autographs to the extent that both players received police escorts away from the scene.
“When you’re in hotels, there are a lot of different folks that you don’t recognize,” Johnson said. “And the hotel lobbies were a lot more crowded than they’ve been in the past.”
It was an abnormal summer for the Crimson Tide, which has made the NCAA Tournament field just once in the last 11 seasons (2012), and has not won a tourney game since 2006.
Things took an even more bizarre turn on Sept. 27 — one day after news broke of a widespread FBI investigation into college basketball programs across the country — when Alabama announced that basketball staffer Kobie Baker had resigned following an internal investigation. The school claimed its program had not violated any SEC or NCAA rules, and AL.com reported that, as of this Wednesday, the school said it had not received a subpoena.
Still, Johnson was much less forthcoming about his opinions on the subject than other coaches were Wednesday.
“We’ve already released a statement about that,” he said. “I’m just here to talk about our team. And in the future, if there’s something else that we need to say about it, we’ll say it at the appropriate time.”
When a reporter asked whether the potential investigation might affect recruiting, Johnson shook his head in dramatic fashion and did not offer a verbal answer.
He was unsurprisingly much more excited to talk about his on-court product, which should be competitive in a loaded SEC this season.
“While everybody’s talking about the freshmen, our returning players’ leadership and mental toughness are going to be critically important,” Johnson said. “And this is the first time since I’ve been at Alabama I feel we’ve had that really good blend of young players and returning players.”