Alabama basketball: What is Tide's ceiling? Separating reality from wishful thinking
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — With any new Alabama basketball coach, first comes hype, and then comes a little success before an ultimate parting of ways.
That’s what we’ve seen from the Crimson Tide’s past two men’s basketball coaches in Anthony Grant (2009-2015) and now Avery Johnson (2015-2019), with whom Alabama and athletic director Greg Byrne decided to “mutually part ways” Sunday morning.
Associate head coach John Pelphrey will serve as interim head coach until a replacement is named.
Alabama went 75-62 under Johnson and advanced to postseason play in each of his four years, which included an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament in 2018 with Collin Sexton.
Johnson and Grant’s eras mirrored each other in a lot of ways outside of Grant getting 2 extra years.
Grant came in with a ton of hype and promise after spending 10 years as Billy Donovan’s assistant at Florida. He also had success as a head coach at VCU, including an NCAA Tournament upset over Duke in 2007.
There were some high points early in Grant’s tenure, particularly in years 2 and 3. In Year 2, Alabama had a home win over Kentucky and made it to NIT final, where it lost to Wichita State.
Year 3 saw Grant lead Alabama back to the NCAA Tournament, where the Tide lost a heartbreaker to Creighton in the opening round.
At the time, that felt like a building block, but it was ultimately the beginning of the end.
Alabama won 23 games the next season, but did not make the NCAA Tournament. Grant’s final year saw Alabama get off to a hot start, but fade out in conference play.
Once Grant wasn’t winning, fans became more and more vocal about how little he seemed to promote the program. When Grant was fired, the fan base clamored for a coach who would be vocal about his love and support for the Crimson Tide.
In came Johnson, who was a great ambassador for the Alabama brand.
Johnson, who won an NBA title as a player and reached the NBA Finals as a coach, set lofty goals for Alabama basketball, mentioning Duke and national championships in his introductory press conference.
Johnson recruited at a high level, getting Alabama into conversations with prospects they wouldn’t have had a chance with during previous regimes. He used every opportunity available to promote the program. He was active on campus as well.
On the court, Johnson and Alabama seemingly barely missed the NCAA Tournament in his first two years before breaking through in Year 3.
Alabama won an NCAA Tournament game over Virginia Tech, and if they didn’t draw eventual-national champion Villanova in the second round, who knows how far they could have advanced.
But that was a microcosm of the Johnson era: losing games that you shouldn’t lose that end up putting you in unfavorable situations. In Year 1, 2 and 4, Alabama lost winnable games that kept them out of the tournament. In Year 3, Alabama lost games that forced them on the 8-9 line, which led to facing a No. 1 seed in their second game.
With Johnson out, the program seems to have more questions than answers. What are realistic expectations? What are some of the challenges? Answering those isn’t easy.
Alabama hasn’t been in the final AP poll since 2005, when they finished No. 21. That team, coached by Mark Gottfried, lost its NCAA Tournament opener to No. 12 seed Milwaukee.
In terms of history and trophies, there’s more hope than hardware. The Tide have been to one Sweet 16 since Wimp Sanderson was forced to resign in 1992. Sanderson, of course, took the Tide to the NCAA Tournament 10 times in 12 seasons. Alabama has been all of 9 times in the 27 seasons since. Six SEC teams have been more in that span and 6 have reached the Final Four.
NCAA success 1993-2019
How can Alabama close the gap?
Alabama needs to upgrade its basketball facilities sooner rather than later. Look no further than in-state rival Auburn, which in 2010 poured $86 million into Auburn Arena. The Tigers are now in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003.
Facilities aren’t everything, but they are a major key in the landscape of recruiting. It’s not like Alabama doesn’t have the money or the resources. Alabama has committed to improving the facilities in the coming years as a part of their “Crimson Standard” initiative, but will that be enough to attract a high-profile coach right now? Or high-profile recruits right now?
This will be the latest big hire of Greg Byrne’s tenure in Tuscaloosa.
Get it right, and Alabama will end the hype-little success-firing cycle. Get it wrong, and we’ll be asking the same questions again in 4 to 6 years.