After the hype, and the work that went into landing one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, University of Alabama men’s basketball coach Avery Johnson wanted to find out what kind of team he has for the upcoming season.
After 10 practices and three exhibition games in Canada, he has to like what he’s seen so far. Alabama has talent. It has versatility. It has depth, and it showed a few signs of character.
But what Johnson primarily learned about the Crimson Tide boils down to two words: “Foot speed.”
“We’re pretty fast,” he said. “We can score. I’ve always talked about scoring in the first 5 to 7 seconds. That was like a little bit of a dream the first two years. It might become reality this year. It would be nice to see.
“I like our foot speed, our wing speed. The more easy baskets you can get before a defense can set up, and then hopefully we’ll do a better job of executing, you’re balanced. You can score early, you can score in the medium part of the game or you can score late. There may be situations in which there’s 3 seconds on the shot clock or 5, we don’t want a shot clock to get that low, but then we have guys that we think can create their own shot and not one guy.”
That one guy, of course, was guard Retin Obasohan. He flourished under Johnson and averaged 17.6 points in 2015-16. That’s not taking anything away from Alabama’s other players over the past couple of years, but when push came to shove and the Crimson Tide needed to score it was obvious who was getting the ball.
Now, the Crimson Tide has a number of ways it can beat an opponent, which is going to make watching this group develop over the season a lot of fun.
Consider this, Alabama played three games, and went 2-1, without its returning point guard, Dazon Ingram, as the sophomore was held out as a precautionary measure following a foot injury.
However, the Crimson Tide showed good ball movement and beat a challenging opponent, Ottawa, without their other key ball-handler, standout freshman guard Collin Sexton. Six players reached double-digits in scoring.
But Johnson didn’t want an easy trip. He deliberately scheduled Carleton, which has won 13 of the last 15 Canadian national championships, playing their rules, in their gym and against a team used to playing together.
He also had the Crimson Tide play three games in four days, including back-to-back nights against their toughest foes, and out of their element. The gyms were small, the officials unfamiliar. Both English and French are widely spoken in Montreal, which was the team’s first stop, and Ottawa is the largest English-French bilingual university in the world.
It was a good test because the deck was largely stacked in favor of the home teams and Johnson wanted to see how his would react. For the most part, the players responded well.
“The main thing we wanted when we decided to come to Canada was to play,” Johnson said in a statement Thursday night. “We thought this would be the best competition we could face.
“We’ve had two really tough games and that’s what we wanted, especially given the fact that we have some of our key guys banged up. We didn’t want to go somewhere where we would win 105-5 or something like that. We wanted to have somewhat of a real game, and that’s what we accomplished on this trip.”
Of course, it wasn’t perfect. In addition to the injuries, Alabama got off to a slow start in all three games and too often didn’t close the quarter well. There were too many turnovers and defensive lapses, although that’s to be expected when six players are new and everyone’s still figuring each other out.
From sophomore forward/center Daniel Giddens, who saw his first game action after transferring from Ohio State last year, to sophomore forward Braxton Key and junior guard Avery Johnson Jr., everyone made a contribution.
As for the freshmen, Sexton is as good as advertised, as is guard John Petty. He scored 49 points during the trip after going 8 of 10 in the opener.
John Petty had 22 points in 16 minutes. To put that in perspective there were games last year the team didn't score 22 points in 16 minutes
— Bam (@BigBam3) August 8, 2017
Not enough players shot well against Carleton, but overall the team made 46.4 percent — up from 42.4 last season. It also forced the Canadian teams to come out and guard the perimeter more, which created open space for the interior game.
“I won’t call them shooters,” Johnson said. “Hopefully we’ll have makers this season.”
Yet the player who may best demonstrate the difference in the Crimson Tide so far is junior forward Donta Hall, who turned 20 while on the trip. From his jump hook to shooting free throws, he’s playing with more confidence.
— Travis Reier (@travisreier) July 25, 2017
“You can see it,” Johnson said. “I think just a lot of it is maturity. A lot of times these guys come to college and they’re 17 or 18 years old, and if maybe you’re from a small town and haven’t experienced any of this, it’s an adjustment period. He’s ready to take the next step forward.
“Jimmy Taylor’s not here any more. We need him to play like a starter.”
So yes, Canada was a good first step for this team, and an important one for the program.
“It’s a process,” Johnson said. “Isn’t that the word on this campus?”