With rising head coach Nate Oats on the sidelines and a talented roster to boot, Alabama is in for a special season.
Riley’s Ranking: 6th
Sometimes, life ain’t fair.
Most folks would kill to see their college excel at one revenue sport, let alone two. But Alabama fans have it made — a football team that’s a shoo-in to the playoffs every year and perhaps the best young coach in college hoops. After last season’s sprint through the SEC and to the Sweet 16, Nate Oats shows no signs of slowing down.
Once again, Alabama will feature one of the best groups of guards in the country. Jahvon Quinerly, the Most Outstanding Player of the SEC Tournament, returns to lead the unit. Though he started just seven games last season, he led the Tide in usage rate, proficiently running the offense when on the court. Now, in the wake of Herb Jones’ departure, Oats will lean on Quinerly for major minutes as the primary initiator.
A gifted iso scorer, the junior teases defenders with his handle to get wherever he wants on the court. Attacking the basket, drive-and-kicks, shooting off the bounce — Quinerly provides it all. He also thrives in transition, almost always making smart plays. Like in this clip where he stops on a dime to hit a floater:
Or in this one, where he stumps his defender with a pump fake and subsequently dimes Juwan Gary.
Throughout the postseason, Quinerly developed in ball security, but he must continue to limit turnovers to reach his ceiling. If he does, he could bring home SEC Player of the Year honors.
Moreover, Alabama received a boost when Jaden Shackelford rejoined the team following a brief stint in the transfer portal. A perfect sidekick to Quinerly, Shackelford bends defenses whether on-ball or off-ball. Without the rock, he sprints off of screens, threatening to heat up from 3 on any given night. His long-distance shooting can be feast or famine — but the “feast” nights singlehandedly swing games in Alabama’s favor. Additionally, he gets to the charity stripe at a decent clip and can run the point in a pinch.
Freshman guard JD Davison will join the vets, bringing an element of explosiveness that the backcourt lacks. His body control and first step pop off the screen, often leading to acrobatic finishes and rim-rattling dunks.
Stop reading and watch that gif again. This dude has classic mixtape-type dunks.
If there’s any critique on Davison, it’s his feel for the game. Learning the nuances of the point guard position top his list of improvements. However, the five-star recruit enters into an archetypal system to hone his craft. For instance, Oats’ up-tempo pace will optimize Davison’s gifting in the open court (Alabama tied for 1st in the country in percentage of shots in transition in 2021); and his five-out philosophy will clear the lane for him in the halfcourt. Plus, Quinerly, who also once faced similar questions about feel, will serve as a valuable mentor to the freshman.
Even if Oats decides Davison would be best off the bench, he can turn to Swiss Army knife Keon Ellis. A former JuCo All-American, Ellis made his D-1 debut last season and blossomed into an important contributor by conference play. On offense, he slashes to the basket with authority and knocks down 3s off the catch. But the Tide feels his full importance on the defensive end. Ellis guards every position along the perimeter, generates a ton of steals, and cleans the defensive glass. His hard-nosed style heavily contributed to Alabama’s third-ranked defense.
And if Texas Tech transfer Nimari Burnett recovers from an ACL tear by tournament time, the upside of the guard corps goes through the roof.
But Bama doesn’t just win from the perimeter; its frontcourt will also factor into its success. Watch for Furman transfer Noah Gurley and top-35 freshman Charles Bediako to man significant roles among the bigs.
Oats got an up-close look at Gurley in December, as Alabama narrowly edged the Paladins in a home win. In that contest, the 6-8 forward poured in 15 points, showcasing a well-rounded offensive repertoire. Specifically, his strong finishing at the rim and capable shooting must have caught the coach’s eye. Coming from one 3-point heavy offense to another, Gurley should flourish as a small-ball 5 at Alabama.
Bediako, on the other hand, stands as a contrast to Gurley. In fact, Oats hasn’t ever coached a player like him. The 7-footer plays somewhat of a throwback game, looking far more comfortable in the post than on the perimeter. Regardless of how Oats develops him over his career, Bediako likely specializes in running the floor and blocking shots in Year 1.
Lastly, there’s Gary, a prototypical Nate Oats big. The redshirt sophomore seems perfectly content serving garbage-man duty alongside all the guards. And I mean that in the best way — he snatches offensive rebounds and slams through contact at the rim.
But most importantly, with Gary captaining the frontline, Alabama should again paralyze challengers with its menacing switchable defense. Replacing Herb Jones on that end is no easy task. But in Gary, Oats may have found a defender nearly as disruptive (as Three Man Weave’s Jim Root details here).
It seems almost impossible for the Tide to match its absurd defensive numbers from last season — because it was just that good. For example, during a stretch from December to February, Alabama held opponents under 1 point per possession in 14 of 15 games. But so long as it can get somewhat close to that level, Oats may notch his first Final Four.
Projected starters: G – Jahvon Quinerly (Jr.); G – Jaden Shackelford (Jr.); G – Keon Ellis (Sr.); F – Juwan Gary (R-So.); F – Noah Gurley (Gr.)
Strengths: Guard play; shot selection; switchable defense
Weaknesses: Inexperience depth; injuries to key pieces
Best player: Quinerly
Breakout player: Ellis
**expected to miss the season due to injury