Despite almost an entirely new roster from last year’s Sweet Sixteen appearance, hopes are high for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
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Though they were picked just 5th in the SEC preseason poll entering the year, Nate Oats’s Alabama Crimson Tide rose through the ranks early and often to start the year. After knocking off then-#1 North Carolina in 4OT, the Crimson Tide proceeded to beat the next #1, Houston, the following week. Freshman Brandon Miller was a revelation, leading the Tide in scoring five of the team’s first six games. Fellow freshman Noah Clowney also showed his worth early on, recording 16 points and 11 rebounds in the win against Houston.
The team’s next game, however, showed cracks that would eventually break the foundation in the team’s last game of the season. Against Memphis, a game that the Tide eventually won 91-88, the team committed 19 fouls and gave up 19 turnovers while allowing 30 points to Kendric Davis. Memphis shot just 1-12 from deep, and the final result could’ve been changed had the Tigers been just slightly more efficient from deep. The Crimson Tide survived, however, but lost their next game to Gonzaga, 90-100.
Despite out-rebounding the Bulldogs by a 37-30 margin, (more on that later) Alabama simply could not stop the Gonzaga offense. Drew Timme scored 29, and 6 different Bulldogs scored in double-figures. While the Tide won their next 6 games by double digits, Darius Miles, who had not been active while dealing with an injury, was arrested on murder charges on January 15.
Miles was immediately dismissed from the team, and it was assumed around media circles originally that it was simply a tragic incident with no other Alabama team members involved. On January 28, in the SEC/Big12 Challenge, the heavily favored Tide lost to Oklahoma, 93-69, after the Sooners shot 9-13 from deep. For stretches of the season, Alabama would look invincible for weeks before losing a head-scratcher. After the Oklahoma loss, the Tide would go 5-1 (including a road loss to Tennessee) before February 21. On that day, a day before the Tide’s game in Columbia against South Carolina, Tuscaloosa police announced that star freshman Brandon Miller had brought the murder weapon, a firearm belonging to Miles, to the murder scene. Despite a pending investigation, Miller was allowed to play the following day, where he scored 41 points in a 78-76 victory for the Crimson Tide.
National media cycles did not side with Nate Oats and the Crimson Tide, and he faced heavy criticism for continuing to allow players in the midst of a murder investigation to take the court. Questionable quotes including the players being in the “wrong place at the wrong time” caused media outcry, which Oats unsuccessfully tried to walk back.
Throughout the controversy, the Tide continued to play well on the court, winning all 3 SEC tournament games by double digits after losing to Texas A&M in the regular season finale. They entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed after compiling a 29-5 overall record with ranked wins over North Carolina, Houston, Michigan State, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas A&M.
Opening with a solid win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, the Tide then dispatched Maryland 73-51 to reach the Sweet Sixteen. Unfortunately for Alabama, their next opponent was perfectly suited and coached to end the Tide’s dream season. San Diego State and Brian Dutcher came into the game as 6.5-point underdogs, but the end of the game saw the Aztecs send the Crimson Tide home.
Trailing 23-28 after the first half, the Crimson Tide defense turned stout for a chunk of the second half, going on a 25-11 run over the course of 8 minutes to take a 9-point lead, 48-39. That was the end of any good vibes in the 2022-23 season for Alabama, however. The Aztecs responded with a 12-0 run to take the lead, and they wouldn’t relinquish it the rest of the way. By the time the final buzzer sounded, San Diego State had won 71-64.
Alabama shot just 3-of-27 from deep, good for 11.1%, and despite 52 rebounds, 20 on the offensive side, the Tide simply couldn’t find the bottom of the net. Their 32.4 FG% was their worst of the season, and Brandon Miller, Noah Clowney, and Rylan Griffen combined to shoot 5-32. (A 15.6 FG%.) Brian Dutcher’s group found the Tide’s Achilles heel, which had shown in losses to Gonzaga and Tennessee.
Just like that, after 40 minutes, Alabama had gone from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. A dream season was gone in the blink of an eye, and while the matchup nightmare of San Diego State and real, legitimate, defensive, and schematic concerns deserve most of the credit, it’s hard to believe that the off-the-court issues in the program had nothing to do with the Sweet Sixteen exit. Nate Oats was either completely overwhelmed by the situation and had no idea how to lead the team in the meantime, or willingly decided that the risk of losing a game was greater than simply keeping his star player off the court until the criminal investigation concluded. Either way, the team found itself in the same position as two years ago, a premature Sweet Sixteen exit, this time with more red (and yellow) tape and a lot more questions to answer.
At the start of this year, the questions remain, but more towards the roster management spectrum of uncertainty. The Crimson Tide lost 5 of their top 6 scores, including Miller, and they only return 3 players from last year’s record-breaking squad. Miller, Clowney, and rim protector Charles Bediako all found homes in the NBA, while Jahvon Quinerly, Jaden Bradley, and Nimari Burnett all transferred out. Only point guard Mark Sears, lengthy guard Rylan Griffen, and center Nick Pringle return to the roster.
The number of departures meant Oats had to hit both the portal and the freshman class hard. He did so, adding Aaron Estrada from Hofstra, Grant Nelson from North Dakota State, Latrell Wrightsell Jr. from Cal State Fullerton, and Mohamed Wague from West Virginia in the portal. In the freshman recruiting class, Alabama added forwards Jarin Stevenson, Sam Walters, and Mouhamed Diabate, as well as guards Kris Parker and Davin Cosby. (Cosby was part of the 2022 class and redshirted last year, preserving his eligibility.)
The rotation is almost completely different from the past season due to the amount of roster attrition. Sears will be the lone remaining starter, and will almost certainly be in more of an on-ball, point guard role as compared to last year when he had to split minutes with Jahvon Quinerly. Aaron Estrada from Hofstra, an extremely talented scorer at 20+ PPG last season, will slide into Sears’s past role and start at the off-ball guard position.
Rylan Griffen is more than likely to fill one of the starter spots, but more so due to length and positional need rather than production. He shot just 36.5% from the field last year, 12th on the team. His 30.1% from deep was 10th on the team, despite shooting the 4th-most attempts from behind the arc. He was also 1 of just 4 players on the team with a TS% of less than 50.0%. His potential is not just from being the No. 43 recruits in his class but also his measurables, is there. His production, however, has not been. Being forced into a larger role this season could be good for his development, but replacing Brandon Miller on the wing with Rylan Griffen is not great for the Tide.
NDSU transfer Grant Nelson dominated the Summit League, and he’ll try to do the same against the SEC. While it’s definitely worth questioning if his game will translate to a Power 6 conference from a low major, his production isn’t debatable. A physical presence, Nelson has improved across almost all statistical categories in his 3 years at NDSU, save for behind-the-arc shooting. His 3P% dropped from 35.6% in 2020-21 to just 26.9% last year, when he attempted a career-high 3.1 3PA/game. Now in Alabama’s high-paced, high-volume offense, he’ll likely need to regain at least some of his outside shooting touch to be as effective as some expect him to be. Besides that, however, he’ll still likely provide an interior presence similar to Charles Bediako’s role last season.
In the center spot will be Nick Pringle, another returnee and the highest FG% on last year’s squad. Living around the rim, Pringle’s win shares per 40 minutes led the team last year, ahead of even Brandon Miller. His eFG% of 84.7% was 18 points higher than any other member of the team. However, his production came in only 8.0 MPG, and he was on pace for 8.2 fouls per 40 minutes. He’ll be forced to shoulder a much bigger role this year, and though his numbers are extremely efficient, he’ll need to cut down on the fouls in order to be effective.
In the rotation, freshman Jarin Stevenson and transfer Latrell Wrightsell Jr. will likely be the first off the bench for the Tide. Wrightsell could end up starting if Griffen struggles shooting again, as he shot 38.3% from deep last year and has a career free throw percentage of 85.7%. Stevenson is tall at 6-11, but he can still shoot the ball well for his size, which bodes well for his niche in the Alabama offense. It would not be surprising for him to get extended minutes when Nelson and Pringle get into foul trouble. (The Tide committed 18.7 fouls per game last year, 53rd-most in the country.)
West Virginia transfer Mohamed Wague is still raw, but he’ll be counted on to play 10+ MPG for the Tide in the frontcourt. He had issues staying on the court for the Mountaineers last season due to foul trouble, (which could be a worrying concern for the Tide this year) but he was efficient around the rim offensively. He’ll almost certainly fill in as Nick Pringle’s backup at center.
6-5 guard Davin Cosby is a bit of a wildcard, as he was ranked as a top-150 recruit in the class of 2022 but didn’t see the court last year and redshirted. He’ll have spent a year in the Alabama offense, which is valuable in terms of playing time, and the lack of other proven guards on the bench could mean a large role for Cosby in his first participatory college season.
The other freshmen on the roster, Kris Parker, Sam Walters, and Mouhamed Diabate, will round out the bench. All have potential, but the 7-deep on the roster will likely play a much more expanded role than the bottom five. The Tide roster this year is a bit top-heavy.
Ultimately, this roster isn’t as talented as last season. That was always going to be the case since it would be a near-impossible task to assemble such a roster for a second time. Alabama could go decades without having a talent the likes of Brandon Miller again. Unfortunately for Alabama fans, last year was the best chance the Tide have ever had to win a title and might have been the best chance Alabama will ever have to do so. That’s not to say this team isn’t good. It’s ranked in the AP poll for a reason. Mark Sears and Aaron Estrada have All-SEC potential, and Grant Nelson has Tuscaloosa raving after some practice clips got leaked. Unlike last year, however, there are questions about who’s starting where and legitimate concerns about depth. It’s almost an entirely new roster, which means it’s nearly impossible to tell how good or bad this team is going to be.
A lot of the team’s frontcourt is either inexperienced or has serious concerns about fouling, an issue that was already present last year. (They fouled Mississippi State 25 times in one game last year, leading to 36 attempts from the stripe for the Bulldogs.) Team chemistry is a bit of an overrated predictive measure, but it’s still worth monitoring how well the team will gel after the amount of roster turnover. Last year’s team was elite at rebounding, ranking 1st in the country at 44.6 per game, almost 4 more than any other program. Part of that was scheme-related, but a lot of that production was due to Bediako, Clowney, and Miller, who all averaged 6+ RPG. All three are now on an NBA roster, and 3 of the team’s 5 projected starters won’t provide a ton of production on the boards.
The non-conference schedule will provide good litmus tests for how the season will go, similar to how last year’s non-conference matchups foreshadowed a record-breaking season for the Tide. Alabama takes on Clemson, Purdue, Creighton, and Arizona. Purdue especially will be telling. If Bama’s new frontcourt can slow down Zach Edey, they can slow down any frontcourt. Creighton, on the other hand, will be excellent behind the arc. Alabama’s perimeter defense was elite last year, giving up just a 28.3 3P% from opponents. If they can stifle Creighton from behind the arc, it could be a sign that this year’s perimeter defense might be just as good. Even their mid-major opponents are good. Morehead State as the Tide’s first game of the year is one of the better mid-majors this year.
The Tide won’t be as good as last year, for sure. They don’t have a Brandon Miller on their roster, and they likely don’t have a Noah Clowney, either. Their depth is not nearly as good, either, but their offseason additions do seem to fit the Alabama scheme, for the most part at least. With a challenging non-conference schedule and a very deep SEC, the Tide’s record could fall between 18-12 and 24-6. With the roster transition, of course, there’s always a chance that the Tide’s record is lower or higher than that range as well.
At this point in Oats’s tenure, along with his success so far, making the Elite Eight or even Final Four is the Alabama fan base’s expectations. This year, though, that’s not reasonable. The SEC is deep, the top teams of the college basketball world are elite, and Alabama is just not able to replicate what they did last year.
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Head coach: Nate Oats (9th season, 5th at Alabama)
2022-23 record: 31-6 (16-2)
2023 postseason finish: Lost to San Diego State, 71-64, in Sweet 16 of NCAA Tournament
Notable departures: Brandon Miller (NBA), Noah Clowney (NBA), Jahvon Quinerly (Transferred to Memphis) Charles Bediako (NBA), Jaden Bradley (Transferred to Arizona), Noah Gurley (Graduated), Nimari Burnett (Transferred to Michigan)
Notable non-conference games: vs. Clemson (Nov. 28), vs. Purdue (Dec. 9, Toronto), at Creighton (Dec. 16), vs. Arizona (Dec. 20, Phoenix)
PG: Mark Sears (6-1, 185, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 12.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.6 APG, 84.7 FT%
SG: Aaron Estrada (6-3, 190, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 20.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.3 APG, 36.8 3P% (Hofstra)
G/F: Rylan Griffen (6-6, 190, So.)
2022-23 stats: 5.9 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 0.7 APG
PF: Grant Nelson (6-11, 230, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 17.9 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.1 APG (North Dakota State)
C: Nick Pringle (6-10, 230, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 3.5 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 0.2 APG, 84.7 FG%
6: Jarin Stevenson (6-11, 210, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 50 rated recruit
7: Latrell Wrightsell Jr. (6-3, 190, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 16.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.4 APG (CSU Fullerton)
8: Mohamed Wague (6-10, 225, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 4.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 0.3 APG (West Virginia)
9: Davin Cosby (6-5, 205, Rs.-Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 131 rated recruit (Class of 2022)
10: Kris Parker (6-9, 195, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 188 rated recruit
11: Sam Walters (6-10, 198, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 86 rated recruit
12: Mouhamed Dioubate (6-7, 215, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 104 rated recruit
Alabama Crimson Tide MVP: Mark Sears
Sears is truly one of the most underrated players in the SEC, but he’ll have a bigger role this season after the departures of seemingly every meaningful contributor. Sears transferred into Tuscaloosa after spending two years at Ohio but didn’t lose much of a step from the MAC to the SEC, averaging 12.5 PPG and 2.6 APG. He placed in the top 20 in the conference in SPG, APG, points, FT%, TS%, defensive win shares, offensive win shares, win shares, win shares per 40 minutes, defensive box plus/minus, box plus/minus, offensive rating, defensive rating, and points produced.
Even being surrounded by NBA talent, Sears was, consistently, the most impactful player on the Tide at crucial points in the season. A calm, steady presence, he had 6 steals against Kentucky, a double-double against San Diego State as one of the only impact performances for the Tide in that game, 5 assists against both UNC and Michigan State, and 50 combined points against Arkansas and UNC.
This year, Sears will be in an almost entirely on-ball role. He’s a great distributor, so his passing ability will be on full display this season, starting with an impressive non-conference slate. On both the offensive and defensive ends of the ball, Sears is top five at his position in the conference, even on his worst days. One of the most underrated variables of a high-producing tournament team is a mistake-free, high-efficiency, veteran point guard. Sears checks all those boxes, and this team wouldn’t be nearly as good without him on the roster. Nate Oats should be thanking his lucky stars that Sears decided to return to the Tide this season.
Alabama Crimson Tide make-or-break player: Grant Nelson
Nelson comes over from North Dakota State, where he dominated in almost all aspects. The 6-11 forward wasn’t the Player of the Year for the Summit League, but he almost assuredly would have been had it not been for Max Abmas. It was difficult for any conference opponent to match up with him on defense, and he averaged 19.9 PPG and 9.8 RPG in Summit League games.
Nelson was an analytic darling, placing top three in the conference in win shares per 40 minutes, PER, win shares, and box plus/minus. On one hand, it was against a low level of competition. That’s not debatable, as the Summit League isn’t one of the top conferences at the mid-major level. Against non-conference opponents, he was a bit of a mixed bag. He fouled out against New Mexico after scoring just 3 points on 1-of-7 from the field. He did score 11 points and collected 9 rebounds against Kansas, but also committed 5 turnovers to 0 assists. He played great against Northern Colorado, shooting 13-for-22 from the field for 31 points, and dropped 17 points against Arkansas as well.
That game against Arkansas does bode well for his chances to succeed against SEC opponents, but his performances against New Mexico and Indiana State pose questions. His perimeter game has dipped significantly in the past years, as his 3P% went from an above-average 35.6% in 2020-21 to a not-so-great 26.9% last season. Against Summit League competition, he still only shot 32.8% from deep, which does not bode well for perimeter success in the SEC.
However, in terms of physical gifts and potential, Nelson has loads. He’s getting preseason buzz not just from Tuscaloosa sources but national media as well. He was named as a preseason SEC first-teamer for reasons that are justifiable. Will he blossom into an elite post-presence in one of the best college basketball conferences? The jury is out at this point. It’s really anyone’s guess. He of course has the potential to do so, but he’ll need to adjust quickly and immediately.
Key analytic: 3P%
For all the good that the Alabama offense was last season, they weren’t all that efficient from the perimeter. Despite attempting 29.5 threes per game, the most in the SEC and 4th-most out of all 363 DI teams, the Crimson Tide only shot 33.5% from deep, which ranked 218th nationally.
In some of the biggest games of Alabama’s season, they couldn’t hit the three, which didn’t bode well for their aggressive brand of offense. In the game that lost them their best chance to win a title, possibly ever, they shot 3-27 from deep in a 71-64 loss to the eventual runner-ups San Diego State in the Sweet 16.
In such a high-risk offense, (almost all shot attempts were from either above the rim or behind the arc) it’s difficult for teams of that scheme to string together six consecutive wins against tournament defenses in March. When it worked, though, it worked to perfection. Games against LSU, Georgia, and Vanderbilt saw the Crimson Tide shoot 37% or better from behind the arc, make 16 or more threes, and score 100+ points in each game.
Alabama’s frenetic pace, 4th in the nation according to KenPom, allowed for open and often looks from deep. The Tide shot 40+ attempts from behind the arc four separate times last year, and they made at least 13 of them in all four games. The highest mark for the season came against Jacksonville State, where the Tide went 21-46 from deep in a 104-62 victory.
Ultimately, however, shooting the 4th-most threes at the 218th-best efficiency isn’t a sustainable program model. At a certain point, it’s worth creating a contingency plan on offense in case the threes aren’t falling. That didn’t happen last year, and the efficiency and talent of Brandon Miller helped mask the weaknesses of the team’s offense at times. (For example, the overtime win against South Carolina where Miller scored over 50% of the team’s points.)
Sears is back, which is great for perimeter shooting, and Estrada is a marksman, too. But Rylan Griffen didn’t show much from deep last year, and Grant Nelson took a step back from deep last year, even at the Summit League level. Pringle isn’t a threat from the perimeter, and neither is most of the frontcourt. The freshmen are a bit of an unknown in that aspect, but all are above 6-7. While it’s somewhat irresponsible to doubt an entire recruiting class’s perimeter shooting based on height, the freshman class just doesn’t seem to fit last year’s offensive scheme in the way that last year’s roster did. A wildcard is Davin Cosby, the redshirt. If the team needs outside shooting, Cosby could be one of the first off the bench.
Alabama will need to slow down the gas pedal this year in terms of perimeter shooting unless Sears and Estrada knock down three after three this year. Admittedly, that duo has enough talent to make that scenario a reality, but for now, losing Brandon Miller and Jahvon Quinerly doesn’t bode much confidence for an improved team percentage from behind the arc.
Nate Oats is a capable coach, and if the threes aren’t falling, he could very well tweak the offense to provide a more interior-focused approach. With Stevenson, Nelson, and Pringle on the offense, they have the talent to score inside. If Alabama doesn’t break into the range of 35.0-35.5% from deep, which would put them around the top 100 of DI teams, they’ll have to take fewer threes, which was part of the reason they flamed out of the tournament early.
Alabama Crimson Tide 2023-24 projections
Projected conference finish: 4th in the SEC
Projected postseason ceiling: NCAA Tournament – Sweet 16 Exit