In the midst of football season, the Southeastern Conference’s continued escalation as a men’s basketball power continued quietly but powerfully.
The University of Alabama basketball staff is working hard to ride that wave, a necessity as the SEC continues to climb out of the depths of a few years ago, when the league was essentially Kentucky and Florida and some other teams who weren’t great on a consistent basis. Last March, the SEC placed eight teams in the NCAA Tournament field. The league’s goal, which seems within reach, is to make that the norm, not the rare exception.
For the 2018-19 season, that doesn’t seem like a problem. The eight teams that made the tournament all return a solid nucleus (Texas A&M could be the exception but still has talent.) At least two of the teams that did not make the tournament, LSU and Vanderbilt, recruited at a top 10 level nationally. Mississippi State was close and looks loaded. The 18-game league schedule will be daunting.
Even before that, because of basketball’s November/April recruiting calendar, the 2019-2020 season is starting to take shape — and looks daunting as well.
Four SEC teams are in the top 10 nationally in recruiting — Kentucky (which could wind up once more with the No. 1 Class), Tennessee, Auburn and Texas A&M — and, as top prospects commit and sign in November, that number could grow. Rick Barnes’ team in Knoxville received a huge commitment on Wednesday when Josiah James, a national top 15 point guard from Charleston, South Carolina, chose UT over Duke and Clemson.
What’s difficult is placing Alabama in the proper perspective.
Going into the summer, it looked as though the Crimson Tide would have a top 10 class as well. That’s because Alabama was considered the prohibitive leader for Hazel Green point guard Kira Lewis, whose stock kept rising with every recruiting event. At the rate Lewis was going — he had risen as high as No. 30 in Rivals’ national rankings — he might have been a McDonald’s All-American with a strong senior season. He could have moved past Mountain Brook’s Trendon Watford as the state’s No. 1 prospect.
Instead, he reclassified to the class of 2018 and will begin his Alabama career in about seven weeks. As far as recruiting rankings — which are not the most important thing in basketball but which do attract a lot of attention in the build-up to November’s signing date —the Crimson Tide got no credit for Lewis, a four-star recruit at minimum, in either class. The trade-off, of course, is what Lewis can contribute to the current team.
Alabama has two commitments, Juwan Gary, a 6-5 forward, and Jaylen Forbes, a 6-5 shooting guard that Rivals.com ranks as the No. 2 player in Mississippi. The Alabama staff, including Avery Johnson and Antoine Pettway, visited that state’s No. 1 prospect, forward D.J. Jeffries, at his high school in Olive Branch, on Wednesday.
Gary has transferred from Gray Academy in Columbia, South Carolina, to West Charlotte High School in North Carolina, a decision made in part to help Gary concentrate on academics and (one would guess) in part to get him out of the shadow of Frank Martin and South Carolina, which has continued to recruit him.
The Crimson Tide is also considered the leader for another shooter — it is easy to see what Johnson is trying to build — in Jaden Shackelford of Hesperia, California, who jumped 25 spots into the National Top 100 (at No. 99) in the latest 247 rankings.
As far as big men, Alabama was in early on 6-10 forward Drew Timme from the Dallas area. His stock has soared and he’s now being called the “No. 1 priority” for schools ranging from Texas A&M to Gonzaga to Illinois.
Johnson and staff had an in-home visit last week and continue to pursue Timme. Then there is Watford. He still lists Alabama as a possibility but if he sticks with his plan of signing in April, there may be twists and turns ahead.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.