Alabama basketball entered this season as a “sleeper pick” by several writers across the nation (myself included). And while the Crimson Tide struggled a bit out of the gates with just a 4-3 record through the season’s opening month, they have found their rhythm as of late. More specifically, they have found their tempo. Head coach Nate Oats is known for pushing his teams to play at a fast pace but it usually takes time to click.

With the Tide now riding a six-game winning streak, it’s fair to say that this team has hit that stride. Included in this winning streak have been road victories over Tennessee, Auburn, and Kentucky. They have also held serve at home against Mississippi and Florida while leaping out to an SEC-best 5-0 conference record. Alabama sits at 10-3 overall and has skyrocketed to 20th in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric. They were as low as No. 56 just a month ago.

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Perhaps the most noticeable shift during this string of impressive play has been Alabama’s ability to assert its pace. The Crimson Tide love getting up the floor and creating quality shots before opposing defenses can set up. While they started the season deploying that tactic, it feels as though they have come close to perfecting it lately:

The most important step in establishing an up-tempo system is being able to take care of the ball. It is very easy to get out of control and make silly mistakes at this pace, especially for young teams. Alabama has mostly been able to avoid turnovers since the onset of this season but it’s a good sign that its giveaway rate has dropped even since increasing tempo over the last month. This team is learning how to win on the fly and doing so effectively.

‘Bama hasn’t drastically upped its tempo that much this season, but it has figured out how to create advantages. Forcing opponents to play much faster than usual has led to all-around improvements. The Tide have exhibited a radical 11.2% shift in eFG% across both ends of the floor since Dec. 22.

To simplify this explanation, let’s take a peek into how Alabama has been able to assert its pace against teams that would much rather take things slower:

Click to enlarge.

Plenty of factors have gone into Alabama turning a corner over the last month. First and foremost, though, the Tide appear settled into their system and can implement it against anyone. Tennessee is a very difficult team to speed up and doing so even by only 3.6 possessions can be the difference between taking down a Top 10 team on the road and losing. Coach Oats has his team playing its best basketball right now and that has many excited about the next two months.

Tide have the depth necessary to succeed.

One of the things that has made this recent stretch exciting for Alabama is that they have played well even in the absence of Jahvon Quinerly. The former five-star recruit and Villanova transfer was playing big minutes through the team’s first 10 contests. He was particularly impactful by jumpstarting this winning streak with averages of 16.7 points and 4.7 assists per game over the first three victories. He has missed Alabama’s last three games due to a medical condition but Coach Oats is “hoping to get Quinerly back by this weekend (Jan. 16).”

A pair of fellow newcomers have stepped up in his absence, though, with JUCO transfer Keon Ellis and freshman Josh Primo putting forth strong efforts. The former scored 16 against Florida while the latter combined for 34 in the following victories over Auburn and Kentucky. Primo especially appears to be coming into his own after those back-to-back strong performances. The Crimson Tide are 6-0 (this entire streak) since he was inserted into the starting lineup.

Coach Oats’ ability to turn to his bench for breakout performers seemingly night in and night out is a huge luxury. This is especially true given his up-tempo style and the unpredictability of this season. Even if Quinerly returns this weekend, the Tide are not done facing challenges in the injury department. Yale transfer Jordan Bruner will miss the coming month with a meniscus injury and Herb Jones is day-to-day. The two seniors have started every game to date for Alabama.

The hope is that Jones will only miss a game or two, but replacing Bruner will be a tough task. This is where fellow upperclassmen Alex Reese and James Rojas will be asked to step up their games. Reese has struggled with his shot over the past couple of years, but stretches the floor regardless. Given Alabama’s fast pace, it could sacrifice some height (and already does) in small-ball lineups for periods as well. Dealing with injuries is difficult, but the Tide are more equipped than most.

Who are the key names to know?

Of course, having depth is only valuable if the leaders are talented enough to dominate. And while Coach Oats is only in his second year at the helm, Alabama has plenty of star power. Five of the Tide’s top seven scorers were RSCI Top 100 players out of high school. The two who weren’t are Bruner (7.8 pts, 5.4 rebs) and Herb Jones (12.5 pts, 6.1 rebs) — two collegiate vets who know what it takes to win.

Alabama’s leading scorer this year has been Jaden Shackelford, a second-year guard maintaining a strong start to his career. While his efficiency has dipped a bit compared to last year, he is still averaging 13.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He has both increased his assists (third on the team with 1.9 per game) and decreased his turnovers as well.

Senior John Petty joins Shackelford in the starting lineup. A do-it-all 6-5 combo wing, Petty is averaging 13.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game so far this season. He has averaged double-figure scoring in each of his four years with the Crimson Tide as a veteran holdover from the prior coaching staff. Petty is one of the crucial anchors to this team as an on-the-court leader.

When healthy, the aforementioned Quinerly can be a dynamite player both in the starting lineup or off the bench. The former Top 50 recruit leads the team in assists per game and is coming into his own during his first season of eligibility in Tuscaloosa. Add in fellow underclassman Joshua Primo and the frontcourt reserves and it is easy to be high on this team.

Shackelford, Jones and Petty are the leaders. The rest are supporting cast members who would star on most teams in America. With a quality coach that preaches his scheme leading the way, Alabama has what it takes to be excellent.

Hot streak … or sustainable tide-turning?

This is the big question that Alabama needs to answer over the next two months. It is obvious that the Crimson Tide are playing better than just about anyone in the nation right now. In terms of efficiency margin, they rank sixth nationally since Dec. 22 (min. three games). This streak coincides with the loss of Quinerly for the past three contests. But is this stretch just a “hot streak” or a true turning of the tides that qualifies Alabama as a dark horse for a monster March run?

While it’s extremely unlikely that the Crimson Tide will roll through SEC play undefeated, they are ready to be a Top 25 team for the rest of the season. Put simply, Alabama checks almost all of the boxes: They are deep, well-coached, assert a difficult style for opponents to handle, and can beat teams in many ways. This has all been evident as they have also found their stroke from distance.

Since the beginning of conference play (five games), Alabama is shooting 38.8 percent from beyond the arc. Most importantly, this is a team that has perimeter contributions from all five positions. One would be hard-pressed to find many teams with better floor spacing: Seven different Crimson Tide players have made at least 10 3-pointers this season. Their offensive diversity makes them hard to stop and this group is even better on the other end.

Alabama will struggle on the defensive glass and commit a fair number of fouls, but those are its only main weakness on that end of the floor. The Tide limit ball movement extremely well — ‘Bama opponents assist on just 44.2% of made field goals — and force difficult shots (opp. eFG% of 41.3% in conf. play). Those are the two most important areas to monitor defensively and succeeding in both is a recipe for success.

Even in a down year by Kentucky, other SEC squads have stepped up. Not only is Tennessee a Top 10 team but Alabama is making its case to join them. The Crimson Tide are showing why they might be worth penciling deep into your March bracket.

Lukas Harkins
Lukas Harkins

Heat Check CBB national writer and bracketologist