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Sport Avery Johnson building a winner at Alabama

00:25  21 may  2017
00:25  21 may  2017 Source:   herosports.com

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Avery Johnson has led the Crimson Tide to back-to-back NIT berths in his first two seasons.

When I put together a short list of college basketball's sleeping giant programs a few months ago, one criteria I had was that the program in question shouldn't be one that would -- no matter how much they improved -- never be able to step out of the shadow of the school's football team.

Which meant Alabama didn't make the cut, for obvious reasons.

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So maybe it's not a "giant" in the making down in Tuscaloosa, but Crimson Tide hoops coach Avery Johnson is building something worth watching on the campus that Nick Saban owns.

This past season was Johnson's second at Alabama, following his seven-year run coaching in the NBA (which included a trip to the Finals and the league's Coach of the Year award in 2006). The Tide went 19-15 overall and 10-8 in the SEC. They lost a close game to Kentucky in the semifinals of the SEC tournament, then ended their season with another close loss to Richmond in the first round of the NIT.

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It was an improvement from Johnson's first season, in which 'Bama went 18-15 overall and 8-10 in the SEC, got blown out by Kentucky in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, then got blown out by Creighton in the first round of the NIT.

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At the same time Johnson was putting together a respectable record on the court, he was also putting together a blockbuster of a recruiting class that could vault 'Bama from the NIT to the NCAA Tournament for the foreseeable future.

Alabama's 2017 recruiting haul is ranked No. 6 in the country by Scout.com and second among SEC schools to -- of course -- Kentucky. Johnson signed a class that is considered better than the ones compiled by powerhouse programs like Louisville, North Carolina, Michigan State, Kansas and Villanova.

The Tide's incoming class is headlined by All-American point guard Collin Sexton (Mableton, Ga.), a five-star recruit who is arguably the best high school perimeter player in the nation. Sexton has drawn comparisons to Russell Westbrook with his explosive talent and outward passion on the court. Not only should he put a few more W's on the board for Alabama, but he should also put a lot more backsides in seats at Coleman Coliseum and draw a lot more TV viewer's eyes to 'Bama basketball.

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Joining Sexton in the backcourt will be John Petty (Jemison, Ala.), the 9th-best shooting guard in the national high school senior class according to Scout. Freshman frontcourt additions include power forward Alex Reese (Pelham, Ala.), also ranked ninth at his position by Scout; three-star small forward Herb Jones (Newbern, Ala.), ranked No. 36 overall; and three-star center Galin Smith (Clinton, Miss.).

Earlier this week, Johnson landed another recruit who won't be able to play next season but will be one of the most talented players on the roster. Small forward Tevin Mack is transferring to 'Bama from Texas, where he averaged 14.8 points per game last season before he was suspended indefinitely.

Mack will have to sit out next season due to NCAA transfer rules, but he'll have two years of eligibility beginning in 2018-19.

While Mack sits out, Alabama should still be solid on the wing. Braxton Key, the team's leading scorer from last season, has thrown his name into the NBA Draft pool but has yet to sign with an agent. Key, who averaged 12.0 points and 5.7 rebounds as a freshman, is currently not surfacing in many mock drafts, so the word in Tuscaloosa is that he will return to school. If he does, the Tide are that much more of a threat in the SEC.

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Johnson is also bringing back two-guard Dazon Ingram (10.6 ppg), wing Riley Norris (9.0 ppg), forward Donta Hall (6.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg), and Johnson's son, point guard Avery Jr. (6.9 ppg).

Don't expect Alabama to get a lot of hype going into next season. While Johnson is one of the country's more high-profile coaches due to the fame he acquired as an NBA champion point guard, award-winning coach and memorable announcer -- no one who's heard Avery Sr. talk can forget that voice -- and Sexton will be a magnetic one-and-done, there's a lot going on just in the SEC.

Kentucky is Kentucky, with their star-studded roster and national-title expectations. Florida is coming off an Elite Eight run and South Carolina is coming off a surprise Final Four run. Missouri is bringing in freshman forward Michael Porter Jr., who is already projected to be the No. 1 pick in next year's NBA Draft.

Alabama may not be picked to finish among the top teams in the SEC. It may not be quite their time yet for an Elite Eight or Final Four appearance. But Avery Johnson's program is definitely on the rise. You don't have to call them a sleeping giant, but big moves are being made at 'Bama.

Related photos: NCAA tournaments (provided by photo services)

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