Even before the last college basketball season began, University of Alabama basketball fans started to feel a strange sensation, one that many younger fans had never felt and many older ones had forgotten. For years, Alabama fans were conditioned like a Pavlovian poodle when the words “roster news” were uttered. The expectation was that something unpleasant was sure to follow. Usually, that is exactly what happened: An in-state prospect like William Lee or a Josh Langford would sign elsewhere. Worse, a prospect like Trevor Lacey would sign, show promise, then leave.

That’s not to put all the blame on the previous coaching staff. For one thing, college basketball has increasingly become a vagabond sport. There is no immunity against attrition, not even if you have the bloodlines of a Duke or UCLA. Players turn pro. Players transfer looking for playing time. Good programs tend to end up on the positive side of the balance sheet, but there are always liabilities.

Avery Johnson, though, has done a great deal to put Alabama basketball on the plus side of the ledger so far. The Crimson Tide recruiting class was ranked between No. 5 and No. 7 nationally, depending on which service you use. The transfer of Nick King was sidetracked by illness, but there is quiet optimism about Daniel Giddens’ potential as he becomes eligible. Tevin Mack, who will sit out the upcoming season after transferring from Texas, is a proven scorer of high caliber. In total, the good news has been abundant.

That still doesn’t quite ease the nervousness about Braxton Key. The sophomore-to-be forward seems set on pushing right up to the deadline for declaring whether or not he will return for the upcoming season. He had a strong freshman season, even when he was pushed to carry more of the scoring load than Johnson would have liked. As a result, he had some tough nights along with some great nights. The optimistic view is that he’d be a perfect fit on next year’s team — good basketball IQ, deft passer, the potential to be a stronger, better rebounder — even if he doesn’t have to bear the same scoring burden.

Will Key return? Logic says he should — he’s probably not ready for the NBA at this point. One word of precaution — look at any mock draft and see how many lottery picks are one-and-dones and how few are college juniors or seniors. That doesn’t mean there aren’t guys like Kris Dunn and Buddy Heild, who improved their stock. It just means that, for most players, the clock starts ticking as soon as they start playing in college.

Still, Key could benefit from a return. There are plenty of “sources” that say that’s what he will eventually do, given that most other options are undesirable. Most close sources will say only that it’s up to Key to make his own announcement. Alabama fans remain optimistic, but there is still that old lingering demon that makes them believe that at some point, something isn’t going to go their way.

Only Key knows all the factors involved. Not every decision is about basketball, and it is his right, no one else’s, to make that decision. He’d be welcomed back by the fan base, and if his mind is on improving next year (not just on slogging through one more season and playing with one foot out the door), he’s a big asset. Until then, Alabama fans will wait and hope the long streak of good news continues the way that it has since last November.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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