The coaching carousel, as they call it, turns every spring. In the spring of 2015, it turned for both the Texas Longhorn and Alabama Crimson Tide basketball programs.
The Crimson Tide had just dumped head coach Anthony Grant — Shaka Smart’s predecessor at VCU — after six seasons that included only one NCAA tournament trip. Grant found a nice landing spot with his old boss Billy Donovan working as an assistant coach for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Alabama was off to find his replacement.
The Tide made a lot of noise about making a big name hire. Gary, err, Gregg Marshall was their first choice. They took a big pile of of that ROLL TIDE football money up to Wichita and Marshall turned it down, electing to stick with a Shockers squad that at the time was returning two preseason All-American candidates in its back court. It didn’t hurt that Wichita nicely topped off his salary, making the ROLL TIDE stacks of cash a little bit less compelling. Meanwhile, Texas quickly settled on Shaka Smart.
And so Alabama moved on to new candidates, and landed a well-known name to basketball fans. Avery “the Little General” Johnson, the rare person who simultaneously has a nickname that vaguely sounds like an anatomical euphemism as well as a family name that absolutely is one, was their man. After a long playing career in the NBA, Johnson switched to coaching. Split between Dallas and the Nets, the Little General spent the better part of seven seasons as a head coach. Alabama is his first college job.
Alabama fans got their first taste of Johnson last year, a season that saw the Tide struggle at times, but one that was far from a disaster. Alabama went 8-10 in the SEC, and was 18-15 overall. Not bad.
This season Johnson’s squad is 4-2, with four wins over mostly over-matched opponents, and with losses to the two quality teams on the schedule: Dayton and Valparaiso. Both losses saw Alabama struggle with perimeter shooting while their opponents did not.
The Tide’s strength comes on the defensive end — specifically they force a high rate of turnovers. This makes them the first Longhorn opponent who aggressively challenges opponents in this way, which makes tonight’s game our first chance to see how Texas’ young guards Andrew Jones and Kerwin Roach will do against a defense that sets out to create this sort of trouble.
Additionally, Johnson’s squad is strong on the defensive interior. 6’8 freshman Braxton Key, 6’9 sophomore Donta Hall, and 6’10 senior Jimmie Taylor all protect the rim (opponents are shooting 43 percent inside the arc so far this season) and control the defensive glass.
On the offensive end, things don’t always come quite as easy for the Crimson Tide. Alabama plays rather slowly in the possessions where it can’t take turnovers and convert them into easy scores. And scoring can get a little difficult at times.
One thing that the Tide do well offensively is shoot the ball from the perimeter. Through the first six games 42 percent of ‘Bama shot attempts have been from three point range, and they have connected on 36 percent of these attempts. Almost everyone in Johnson’s 11-man rotation has the green light to shoot. Through the first six games Key, Riley Norris, Corban Collins, and Ar'mond Davis have been the most productive players from deep.
Freshman Dazon Ingram is the primary point guard and has had a strong start to his college career. He is backed up by Texas A&M transfer Avery Johnson, Jr. — the Little Little General.
Alabama’s early recruiting returns with Johnson have been solid, although to be fair the Tide have always recruited pretty well. A big name like Johnson — provided he and his staff put in the work -- should do fine recruiting in a place like Tuscaloosa.
It is possible that the Tide are on a strong trajectory for the future. But at least as of now, this doesn’t appear to be a particularly strong team, which frankly should make them a reasonably close match for a struggling Texas squad.
The game tips off at 8:30 PM CST in Austin tonight, and airs on ESPNU.