TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The theme for the 2017-18 University of Alabama men’s basketball season was supposed to be buckle up, as in strap yourself down because the program’s about to take off.
Instead, it’s been more like a protective reflex of late.
The past few weeks have been rocky for the Crimson Tide, who will open the season against Memphis on Friday night, part of the Veterans Classic in Annapolis, Md. (6:30 p.m. ET., CBS Sports Network). The program had a key administrator resign, the status of the highest-rated prospect in Alabama history come into question and the returning scoring leader sustained a knee injury.
With two other players also sidelined, coach Avery Johnson’s team already was looking up from inside a hole without having played a single minute of official game time.
“We’re finally here,” Johnson said earlier this week. “We feel we’ll be able to survive it, and if we stub our toe a little bit that’s a part of the game. It’s a part of the nature of the business in college basketball and we’ll just have to bounce back.”
This wasn’t how anyone expected the Crimson Tide to begin play, especially with expectations high and Alabama pushing to land its first NCAA Tournament invitation since 2012. It was ranked No. 25 in the preseason coaches’ poll and narrowly missed being in the AP Top 25.
Yet the headlines have been dominated by administrator Kobie Baker’s sudden resignation in the wake of the FBI college basketball corruption scandal investigation, and prize freshman guard Collin Sexton finding himself in eligibility limbo. The Sexton case ended Thursday night when athletic director Greg Byrne announced that Sexton would serve a one-game suspension and “be eligible for competition in the team’s home opener on Tuesday versus Lipscomb.”
Meanwhile, sophomore forward Braxton Key underwent meniscus surgery that will sideline him for approximately a month.
“They bring a lot of offense to our team, defense too,” said sophomore guard Dazon Ingram, the only player to start every game last season.
Senior forward Riley Norris (hip) and senior guard Ar’Mond Davis (knee) have yet to start practicing, but both are getting close.
“We’re hoping that once we get healthy that we can bring it all together when we ‘re playing regular-season nonconference games, and in into conference you’ll see the true depth that we have at every position,” Johnson added.
Regardless of how the rotation looks against Memphis, the overall roster is significantly improved, but young, with eight freshmen and sophomores. Alabama returns four starters and seven players from the 19-15 (10-8 SEC) team that reached the NIT, and added one of the best recruiting classes in the nation. The Crimson Tide signed the No. 8 Class of 2017, according to the 247Sports composite.
Headlining the group was the top in-state player, guard John Petty, and Sexton, the SEC’s only player on the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award Watch List and one of 32 players on the 2018 Oscar Robertson Trophy Preseason Watch List for college basketball’s most outstanding player.
— Alabama Roundball (@BamaRoundball) October 25, 2017
All five additions may be counted on immediately along with sophomore center/forward Daniel Giddens, who sat out last season after transferring from Ohio State.
“It threw me at first,” he said about playing in Alabama’s exhibition against Alabama-Huntsville at Coleman Coliseum on Monday. “It felt two years of not being on the court.”
After Alabama fell behind 14-1 without Key or Sexton, Giddens led the comeback and tallied 17 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks. Petty and freshman guard Herbert Jones each scored 14, and junior guard Avery Johnson Jr. netted 10.
Moreover, when Johnson paired Giddens with junior forward Donta Hall and freshman forward Alex Reese, the Crimson Tide had both an interior presence and lineup flexibility that had been largely lacking.
“Daniel gives us the ability to play a lot of different ways,” Johnson said. “Obviously, he has that post-up game. Has a pretty good 12-foot shot. He can switch a little bit on smaller guys and keep them up front. He can protect the basket. He can rebound. He has a lot of different strengths that help us.”
The team that defeated Alabama-Huntsville 74-65 looked very different from the one that faced No. 24 Baylor in a closed scrimmage at the Philips Arena practice floor on Oct. 28, and pulled out a 75-67 victory.
Or the team that went on a three-game Canadian tour in August.
With the players finding out just hours before the Alabama-Huntsville exhibition that Sexton wouldn’t be available, Johnson wanted to see how they would handle it on the court. He needed to know before playing the likes of Tubby Smith’s Memphis squad, BYU and No. 15 Minnesota in the Barclays Center Classic on Thanksgiving weekend, plus the trip to No. 3 Arizona on Dec. 9.
“The main thing was I really wasn’t trying to hold their hand early in the game,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to get our team to talk more to each other. I wasn’t going to call a time out, wasn’t going to bail them out. It’s not a regular-season game. We have a bunch of young kids. You saw at one point we had two, three, four freshmen on the court at one time. That’s some of the growing pains you have with so many young kids.
“Life is not always a perfect world, but I like the way our guys responded.”