Why Noah Gurley could be a valuable mismatch for Alabama basketball in the postseason

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

Andre Flynn was sitting on his deck in February and smiled. He couldn’t help but think back to a day more than five years ago as he watched Alabama basketball’s Noah Gurley on the screen.

Gurley, Flynn's former player at Fayette County (Ga.) High School, finally had a chance to compete at Rupp Arena.

“I told my wife, ‘Look that’s Noah out there playing,’” said Flynn, who’s from Kentucky.

Then he told her the story.

A few years back, during Gurley’s senior year of high school, Flynn took him and his team to Kentucky to play in a tournament. They competed in five games around Christmastime. One day while in Lexington, Flynn brought the team to Rupp and someone let them in via a side door.

His team spent an hour on the floor. The players took photos. They fired off a few shots. And they soaked up the moment in the empty arena as much as they could.  

“Maybe one day, Noah,” Flynn told Gurley, “you’ll be able to play on a floor like this.”

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One day became Feb. 19, 2022. Gurley made his return as an Alabama forward in a regular-season game against Kentucky.

It was one big stage in a season that will include more significant stages for the player who transferred to Alabama from Furman this year. And Gurley won’t just be a participant. The Crimson Tide needs him to make an impact in the SEC and NCAA tournaments. At 6-foot-8, 215 pounds, he can be a valuable mismatch if he plays to his potential.

“He’s going to be big,” Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats said. “You’re going to play games where the other team rolls out a small lineup and Charles (Bediako) can’t really match up with them. We need to Noah to play the five. We need him, if the other team does have a five that can’t guard a stretch five, to be able to guard the other team’s traditional five and make it impossible for them to guard us on the one end with him being able to stretch the floor.”

Feb 19, 2022; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide forward Noah Gurley (0) goes to the basket during the first half against the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Oats and his coaching staff got an early glimpse at what Gurley could do in 2019 and 2020.

Gurley was on the other side, playing for Furman, at Coleman Coliseum twice. During those games, he left an impression. In the second matchup, he finished with 15 points, sinking two 3-pointers; he went 5-for-6 from the free-throw line.

“As soon as his name went in the portal,” Oats said, “obviously it registered to me that’s the kid we had a tough time guarding when he was at Furman.”

From Gurley’s perspective, he emerged impressed by Alabama. He liked how the Crimson Tide played fast and free. Plus, he certainly noticed the SEC regular-season and tournament championships that Alabama won.

“Kind of inspirational being on the same court with those guys (earlier in the season) and seeing them go accomplish their goals,” Gurley said.

So, he decided to join them. Gurley picked Alabama over opportunities with Auburn, Duke, Florida, Miami, Marquette, Tennessee and San Diego State.

The transition from mid-major to high-major hasn’t come without occasional bumps, though. Gurley has needed time in the program to get more comfortable as he made the jump from facing only a few high majors at most a year to playing against one every night during conference play.

Over time, Oats has seen Gurley become more familiar with the offense and better figure out from where his shots are going to come.

“I think he’s gotten more comfortable,” Oats said. “He’s gotten better with going against athletic bigs on a night-to-night basis.”

Alabama forward Noah Gurley (0) plays against Vanderbilt during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Oats and the Crimson Tide look forward to seeing what Gurley can do when he has a year in the system behind him. Thanks to the COVID-19 waiver, Gurley will have that opportunity. Oats announced in February that Gurley plans to stay for another season.

Gurley doesn’t have to wait until then to make an impact, though. He already has at times this season.

He’s fifth on the team in minutes (18.3) and points (7) per game. In Alabama’s win over Tennessee, Gurley tallied 20 points and 10 rebounds. His signature moment might have been his performance in the win over Arkansas.

Both of those teams whom Gurley performed well against have top seeds in the SEC Tournament this week in Tampa. Tennessee is the No. 2 seed while Arkansas is No. 4. Sixth-seeded Alabama (19-12, 9-9 SEC) will face the winner of Georgia and Vanderbilt at 7 p.m. CT on Thursday.

The Razorbacks were riding a nine-game winning streak heading into a matchup with the Crimson Tide in February. Arkansas appeared like it might extend that to ten with a late lead.

Over the final 90 seconds, Gurley drove for two buckets in the paint to secure the 68-67 victory for Alabama.

Flynn didn’t have a chance to watch it live, but he certainly smiled later viewing those clutch baskets fall from his former player.

“Look at him now,” Flynn said. “He’s on the big stage.”

Contact Alabama reporter Nick Kelly: Follow him on Twitter: @_NickKelly.