Alabama basketball's 2021-22 season: So much promise, so much wasted potential
SAN DIEGO – This Alabama basketball team was supposed to have a better year than this.
This edition of the Crimson Tide was supposed to compete for an SEC title again. This group wasn't supposed to have a season that ended up being marred with inconsistency and questions about effort.
The Crimson Tide (19-14) just couldn’t follow through on what was supposed to happen.
Instead, it finished the season on a four-game losing streak, with the last game a 78-64 loss to 11-seed Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday at Viejas Arena. A season filled with significant promise in November and December fell flat.
A team that could play with the country’s best couldn’t ditch the nasty habit of playing down to the level of other opponents.
“I think managing guys' mental state, if you will, through wins is really important,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “You've got to be able to convince them that we've got to change and get better, even though we won.”
Wins were expected for this group because of what Alabama brought back. The Crimson Tide convinced its leading scorer, Jaden Shackelford, to stay after he looked at his options. Jahvon Quinerly, the SEC Tournament MVP, also remained for another year.
Alabama also added a few talented freshmen in JD Davison and Charles Bediako. Davison was a five-star point guard and No. 1 player in the state of Alabama. Bediako was a four-star prospect.
Alabama was picked to finish second in the SEC behind Kentucky. Yet, when the regular season ended, the Crimson Tide held the No. 6 seed in the SEC Tournament, ultimately losing to 11-seed Vanderbilt in the first game.
Labeling it a bad season might not be accurate or fair. Alabama reached the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year for the first time in 16 years, after all.
It is fair, however, to consider the season one of unmet potential.
Alabama showed it had the ability to beat anyone. The Crimson Tide defeated Gonzaga and Houston in December, two Final Four teams from the previous year. Alabama went on to defeat Baylor in January. The Crimson Tide had wins over two teams that received No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
Those were the high points of the Alabama rollercoaster. The drops, however, proved jarring.
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The Crimson Tide gained a reputation for inconsistency thanks to losses to teams such as Missouri and Georgia, two teams that finished in the bottom of the SEC and went on to fire coaches after the season.
"With the wins we had, if we would have won the games we lost that we should have won, we would have probably been a 3 seed, maybe, 2 (or) 3 seed somewhere,” Oats said. “If you're a 2, 3 seed, you're not playing Notre Dame in the first round. Our loss at Missouri, Georgia, some of those other losses that we were definitely the better team in, those come back to haunt you at the end, and they did that this year.
"Maybe we could withstand (point guard Jahvon) Quinerly going down if we had been a 3 seed today and played a 14 seed instead of having to play a Notre Dame that is really experienced like we did.”
Mississippi State was another winnable game in early January, but Alabama gave that one away. Oats mentioned the word toughness or variations of it nine times after the 78-76 loss in Starkville.
Lack of defensive effort also drew the coach’s ire. So much so that he provided a mandate in late February: play defense, or don’t play.
“We can go big, small, whatever we have to do,” Oats said on Feb. 22. “But we need to find five guys who are bought into playing defense as hard as they can play, wanting to get stops.”
The want didn’t always seem to be there, and Oats and his staff couldn’t find a way to inspire it consistently.
As a result, the Crimson Tide left San Diego after one game, wondering what could have been if Alabama had played a full season to the potential it showed early.
“I don't think buy-in,” Oats said, “was necessarily an issue as much as maturity and experience were.”
Contact Alabama reporter Nick Kelly: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @_NickKelly.