For two seasons now, Alabama men’s basketball coach Avery Johnson has been driving around with one foot on the brake.
That metaphor doesn’t mean Johnson has been contributing to Tuscaloosa’s stop-and-go traffic. It does mean that during basketball games, he hasn’t been able to floor the accelerator. That’s not out of personal preference. Johnson would love to play like a Ferrari on the open highway. The problem is, you’ve got to have a real Ferrari to make that work, not one made largely of parts from a 1975 Gremlin.
Johnson may not have the fully operational Ferrari yet — but you could tell in his Monday press conference, carefully placed in the last lull before football season — that he’s getting closer.
There has been so much bubbling excitement about the upcoming season that Johnson, a natural promoter but a cautious coach, has had to perform a balancing act. He wants fans excited about the incoming freshman class, including prep All-Americans Collin Sexton and John Petty. At the same time, he wants to give all his new faces a chance to acclimate and become college students before piling expectations to the sky.
Alabama fans aren’t waiting, and their excitement is on two fronts. First and foremost is getting the Crimson Tide back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. A close second, though, is this: those fans want to get their in a Ferrari. Starved for success? Yes. But also starved for speed.
Whether because of philosophy or because recruiting demanded it, Anthony Grant’s Alabama teams played at a methodical pace, to put it mildly. His best teams were good enough defensively to win that way, but there were many close decisions that went the other way without being especially entertaining. That’s the leopard Johnson inherited, and he couldn’t change all the spots in a year — especially in terms of quickness.
“One of the things we talked about when I came in was the slogan ‘Buckle Up,'” Johnson said. “We’ve been able to buck, but we haven’t been able to Buckle Up. Hopefully, we’ll be able to play faster, make better decisions. All of our guys on the perimeter, we feel like everybody is capable of passing, dribbling and shooting. (So) your plays tend to work a little bit better, because you need people to pass it, handle the ball (and) problem-solve, especially against trapping defenses.
“We had a game here against Florida last year when they were playing pretty good. They put a little 1-3-1 press on us and we couldn’t pass, dribble or shoot. We hope when we are in situations like that (this season), we’ll not only be able to start games better but to close out games better because of our talent on our roster and because the players that are coming back have some experience.”
As much as the star ratings, the recruiting class is anticipated because it ups the octane rating. Sexton can fly, at a pace that Alabama hasn’t seen since Hollywood Robinson. He can also pass to other speedy players, which Robinson could rarely be bothered with.
Still, Johnson is wise enough to know that even a Ferrari has brakes, and you use them occasionally.
“We hope to eventually get to the Buckle Up, scoring in five to seven seconds, or if we can’t score in five to seven seconds, then scoring (out of a set offense) in the next eight to 12 seconds. We hope to have players that can get their shot off because they are better one-on-one players.”
That word “eventually” does matter. Not that Alabama fans — or Johnson himself — want to wait much longer.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.