The Three Keys to Alabama Basketball’s Season
Following a historic season, which included a bid as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, the program's first, and an SEC double crown, the Crimson Tide are looking to return to where they were.
However, this may be easier said than done. The Tide lost multiple key players to the NBA last season, such as All-American Brandon Miller and the All-SEC frontcourt duo of Noah Clowney and Charles Bediako. Alabama also saw guards Jahvon Quinerly, Jaden Bradley, and Nimari Burnett leave the program via the transfer portal.
Can Nate Oats finally produce back-to-back successful seasons? Can they contend for another SEC championship? And can they finally get past the brick wall that is the Sweet Sixteen? Here are the keys for Alabama's 2023-2024 season:
Key 1: Defense
Nate Oats arguably lost his five best defenders this off-season, three to the NBA (Bediako, Clowney, and Miller) and two (Bradley and Burnett) to the portal.
Last season, Alabama's stout drop defense allowed them to control their opponents and force them to take inefficient mid-range shots or heavily defended threes and layups. This system was led by Noah Clowney and Charles Bediako, whose length and athleticism protected the paint, while Alabama's lengthy forwards and guards were able to protect the perimeter and passing lanes.
With the exodus of several plus defenders from the program, the Tide expects to take a hit on defense. But the defense can't be a negative aspect of the team. In previous seasons under Oats, where the defense was subpar, the Tide experienced minimal regular season and tournament success. (I.e, in 2022 and 2020 where Alabama ranked 92 and 114 in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency per KenPom in both seasons, respectively)
The Tide has the capabilities to be a strong defensive team. Guard Mark Sears and forward Rylan Griffen were more than capable on the defensive side of the ball as starters last season and center Nick Pringle was productive off the bench.
The Alabama newcomers provide what Oats wants on defense too. Transfer center Mohamed Wague provides solid rim protection and instincts off the bench, and former NDSU forward Grant Nelson provides the length and athleticism Nate Oats loves from his bigs.
Coach Oats has also noted some resemblance between freshman guard Kris Parker and former Alabama star Herb Jones.
"He’s definitely not to Herb Jones’ level on defense, but he has some physical tools to get there. He could be a versatile defender.” said Oats.
While Alabama may not be able to reach the defensive dominance of last year's team, retaining a top-tier defense is vital for the Tide this year.
Key 2: A new star rises
Following the departure of superstar Brandon Miller to the NBA, the Tide have been left without a go-to-guy for the upcoming season.
In an attempt to fill the void that Miller left, Oats went to the transfer portal, snagging the highly touted and extremely versatile Grant Nelson.
Nelson, a N.D. native, opted to enter the transfer portal while testing NBA draft waters following three seasons at North Dakota State.
The Devils Lake native provides a skillset that every coach in the country drools over. With a lengthy 6-11, 230 pound frame, Nelson possesses elite guard skills, the ability to stretch the floor, and fluid mobility, making a very unique and elite player.
The other potential star is returnee Mark Sears.
In his first season at Alabama, Sears saw averaged 12.5 points and 2.6 assists per game.
Yes, last year, Sears got ice cold during the end of the season, however for the majority of the season he was one of Alabama's best scorers.
If Sears can stay consistent throughout the season, the Tide have a bonafide star on their hands.
While Sears and Nelson may be Alabama's biggest impact, this isn't saying that Alabama won't have other difference makers down the line up.
Freshmen Jarin Stevenson and Sam Walters are expected to step in and make an impact immediately, sophmore Rylan Griffen is expected vastly improve following a solid freshman season, and senior Nick Pringle is set to thrive in the starting center role.
Key 3: New coaching staff makes an impact
Following Alabama's historic season, the program saw the departure of all three of Nate Oats' assistant coaches, with Brian Hodgson accepting the head coach position at Arkansas State, Antoine Pettway leaving for the head coach job at Kennesaw State, and Charlie Henry taking the open head coach appointment at Georgia Southern. Nate Oats and the program scrambled to replace all three assistants.
AD Greg Byrne and Nate Oats did a phenomenal job replenishing the Alabama bench, bringing in Austin Claunch, Ryan Pannone, and Preston Murphy.
The first hire of the off-season for the Tide was former Nichols State head coach Austin Claunch. Claunch was hired on April 17, 2023.
Claunch, 33, is one of the youngest Division One coaches in the nation. The Houston, Texas native experienced five winning seasons over five years during his time at Nichols State, two of which were first-place finishes in the SLC.
Coach Oats had this to say about coach Claunch:
"Austin is one of the hardest working guys in the business, his work as a head coach at Nicholls was unbelievable with one of the lowest budgets in the country. [...] Not only is he a tireless recruiter and will help us with game planning but he is also a great person who will develop great relationships with our players and have a positive impact in our community."
The second assistant hired this summer was former New Orleans Pelicans' assistant coach Ryan Pannone. The Clearwater, Fla., native spent time working with former Alabama players Herb Jones, John Petty Jr., and Kira Lewis Jr. during his time in the NBA.
Pannone also made stops at several professional leagues across the globe, including Israel's Hapoel Jerusalem, whom he helped lead to a championship as an assistant in 2017.
Oats praised Pannone upon his arrival, stating:
"Over my last four years at Alabama, I have gotten to know Ryan through his work with the Pelicans organization. [...] Ryan brings a wealth of Xs and Os experience to Tuscaloosa from his time coaching in the NBA, G League, and overseas. He is recognized as a top recruiter and a leader in player development, [...] Not only is he a fantastic coach, but he is an even better person and a proven mentor of young men. I am sure Ryan and his family will become a valued part of the Tuscaloosa community."
The third and final hire of the off-season for Alabama came in the form of former Rhode Island Ram Preston Murphy.
Murphy will be a special assistant, focusing on on-court coaching and on-campus recruitment.
Coach Oats had this to say following the hiring of Preston Murphy:
"I'm pleased to be completing our basketball staff with the addition of Coach Murphy. [...] I have known Preston for a long time, and I am excited about the many ways he can add tremendous value to what we do. I am always impressed with his energy, his humility, and his basketball acumen. His insight, experience and ability to connect with student-athletes will be a significant advantage for us. [...] We have every expectation his hire will contribute to the continued success and high benchmarks of Alabama basketball."
The Tide coaching staff played a major part in the program. From recruiting to development to the on-court adjustments and coaching, the previous years' coaching staff helped propel Alabama to being one of the top teams in the country.
Retaining a top-notch staff is key if Alabama wants to get past the Sweet Sixteen this year, and Claunch, Pannone, and Murphy can help them do just that.
Each quote was taken from RollTide.com
With an team filled with experience and a healthy mix of youth, the Tide should be another contender in the SEC.
For more Alabama Basketball content from Simon Besnoy, follow him on X/Twitter at @SimonBesnoy and stay tuned to Tide1009.com for daily news.
23/24 Alabama Basketball Roster
Gallery Credit: Simon Besnoy
Hillcrest vs Northridge
Gallery Credit: Jalen Prince