PITTSBURGH – Coaches are often loathe to make predictions, but Avery Johnson quietly made one after Alabama’s loss to Texas on Dec. 23.
. @AlabamaMBB Fans. You did your part SUPPORTING us last night if you attended the game or watched on TV. We did not have our best game!! I’m so inspired about your passion for ALABAMA BASKETBALL! We will improve! #NoShortCuts 18,19, ? #Hardwork Thank you! #RTR 🎄🐘🏀 https://t.co/OZjokMDxej
— Avery Johnson (@CoachAvery6) December 23, 2017
The “18, 19?” in the tweet was a reference to the number of wins Johnson thought the team might have. Alabama finished its season on Saturday 20-16 overall with an 81-58 loss to Villanova in the round of 32 of the NCAA tournament.
That’s one win better than Alabama’s 19 wins in 2016-17, and two wins better than Johnson’s first season in 2015-16. The Crimson Tide made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012 and won a tournament game for the first time since 2006.
“I think you guys see improvement,” Johnson said. “Donta Hall was All-SEC defensive. Collin obviously had an incredible year. We’re in a situation where we can bring back pretty much everybody on our team. Our freshmen are going to be sophomores. Juniors are going to be seniors, sophomores are going to be juniors. Now they have real NCAA experience to build on. Because of that, now when we bring in our freshmen, they’ll have some experiences they can rely on by getting them from some of the players that experienced this NCAA tournament.”
Alabama is expected to lose Ar’Mond Davis, who did not play this season. Freshman guard Collin Sexton is widely projected as a top-10 pick in June’s NBA draft if he chooses to go pro. Otherwise, the Crimson Tide could return its entire roster.
“I feel like we proved a lot,” Sexton said. “Starting with the SEC tournament. We had heart. We showed people that we have heart, and we don’t give up. We lost five straight and came back from that and we made it here. Everybody counted us out, and I felt like we just kept fighting and kept pushing.”
Alabama weathered plenty of storms throughout the season. There were briefly questions in the preseason about whether Sexton would be eligible. The team started 8-5 in the SEC but lost the last five games of the regular season to put its postseason status in doubt.
There were also highs, including two wins against Auburn and a win against Tennessee. Sexton hit a buzzer-beater in Alabama’s first SEC tournament game. Alabama came into form in time to make some memories in March.
“When you’re dealing with a bunch of freshmen and the fourth-youngest team in the country, sometime they might try to fight you a little bit,” Johnson said. “That’s not a problem. I love conflict. By the time we got on the plane to go to the SEC tournament, Collin was one of the leaders and said ‘Hey, we have to try to do everything that Coach says to the best of our abilities and everything is going to work out.’ By the time it got to the SEC tournament, they were ready to trust our staff 100 percent because obviously the other way wasn’t working too good.”
That’s something Alabama can build on.
“I feel confident,” forward Braxton Key said. “This is a good team with a lot of good guys coming back, a lot of good guys coming in, so I think the sky’s the limit.”
Johnson called it “a step in the right direction.” There were high expectations when the season began, as Alabama was ranked No. 25 in the Coaches’ Poll in the preseason.
What followed that were highs and lows. Johnson hopes Alabama can take this NCAA tournament experience and rise even higher in the future.
“We’re always shooting for the moon and we would have loved to have advanced,” Johnson said. “The final four is in San Antonio and I know a little bit about San Antonio. Not only would I have been satisfied, but if you told me that we arrived at 20 wins the way we have arrived at it, with the way the regular season ended, with us winning three out of five games, I would be totally satisfied. But at the same time, we have a really good friend of mine on campus: Nick Saban. We’re trying to get to that level and we’re not there yet.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.