NASHVILLE – Last year, rebounding at both ends was one of several issues for Avery Johnson’s 18-15 Alabama team, which went out in round one of the NIT. Johnson has taken measures to correct that, drawing on both internal and external resources -- player development and recruiting. He said as much Wednesday at SEC Men’s Basketball Media Day.
“We have a fifth-year (transfer) Bola -- Bola Olaniyan. I have a hard time saying that so I just call him Bola, and he can rebound,” Johnson said of the 6-7 forward, one of his six new men on the 2016-17 Tide roster. Olaniyan ranked second in the MVC last year with 8.8 boards per game, and is expected to play the “Chris Hines Junkyard Dog” role last seen on the Tide’s 2012 NCAA Tourney team, the last time Bama made that dance.
“I told him, ‘If you can rebound, you can play for us,’” Johnson said of his recruiting pitch to Olaniyan. “I told him, ‘If you can play pick and roll defense, you can play.’ He’s not a great shooter or a great ball-handler, but he can help us.
“On a per-minute basis as far as rebounding, especially for us at the offensive end, since we were 329th in the NCAA in terms of (offensive) rebounding, he helps us because we need to get extra possessions. Bola helps us rebounding on the free throw line getting extra possessions, he helps in the flow of the game, and he has a post-up game where we can actually throw him the ball.
“He’s good (shooting) both with his left and his right hand. He’ll get a chance to not only play five (center) for us like he did the last several years, but he’ll be able to play some four (power forward), and we think if we can get him at four, hopefully we can win some of those (rebounding) matchups, unlike like last year.”
Johnson said he’s seen improvement rebounding-wise in both returning centers, Jimmie Taylor and Donta Hall, as well.
“Last year, we weren’t a very good rebounding team,” Johnson said. “We think we’ve addressed some of the problem areas we had through recruiting, and getting healthy.”
Of his second team in general, Johnson is cautiously optimistic. “We’re still learning to pass, dribble, and shoot,” he said, flashing a smile. “We love to pass the ball to the defense, but our guys are working hard. We know a little bit more about each other, since this is this second year of our program. We know a little bit more about the league, and a little bit more about where we need to go to become an NCAA tournament team.
“Our guys have had a very rigorous off season program, kind of a training camp type program over the last week or so, but they’ve worked hard, and been very coachable. We hope to become a better ball-handling and decision making team, which were our Achilles heels last year.
“We have some guys that sat out last year, Nick King and Avery Johnson, Jr., who, because they were in our redshirt program will be able to step in and help us. We feel our strengths going to be in numbers.
“Dazon Ingram, our starting point guard, is healthy. He helps in a lot of areas, because he’s a triple-double threat. (Ingram suffered an early season injury last year and is a redshirt freshman.)
“Corban Collins, a fifth-year guy, comes in as a guy that’s historically been a positive assist to turnover ratio guy. He can make plays for us offensively.”
Citing other signees like guard Armond Davis and forward Braxton Key, Johnson said, “We feel our strength’s going to be in numbers. We’ve had a good off season, and I know our guys are anxious for the season to start.
“Braxton is a guy we can put anywhere on the floor except the center position. You may see him at four, when we want to play a little bit smaller because we need his ball handling ability. He’s a big three (small forward). He has an NBA three type of a body. He’s a good decision maker, has improved his jump shot, is unbelievable on defense, and he can play some ‘point forward,’ so he gives us a lot of versatility we didn’t have (last year).”
Of Morehead State grad transfer Collins, Johnson expects a lot. “You remember the kid, Anthony Collins, that (Texas) A&M had last year? They brought him on… and he was another ball handler. Corbin, we hope, can bring us that type of stability, consistency, toughness, and he’s a really good defender. He takes care of the ball, and we think Corban is going to be a terrific 3-point shooter for us, when he’s off the ball playing with Dazon (Ingram). He gives us a calmness, and he has some SEC experience because of starting off (his career) at LSU.”
“Losing (leading scorer and current Italian League pro) Retin Obasohan is a pretty big hole for us. We don’t think we’re going to have that type of a player this year, but we hope across the board, we’ll be better offensively, because I’m not going to be able to sleep at night with us scoring 65 points a game. I can live with our defense if we give up 66, 67 points and your opponents are only shooting 40 per cent from the field; that should be an NCAA tournament type team. But our Achilles heel was offense, and we think Corbin’s going to help us, with our other new guys, in that area.”
A returning guy Johnson has high hopes for is newly healthy senior forward Shannon Hale. “Now he’s healthy (after) off-season foot surgery,” Johnson said. “His body needs to continue to improve, but his attitude’s been great. (Hale) was a guy that didn’t know me. A lot of those guys were loyal to (former) Coach (Anthony) Grant.
“Now, our guys are in the second year of their program with us, and they kind of know what I like, and how my brain works. It was a little weird at times last year. Now, they know what’s expected of them, and I think they’re a lot more comfortable.”
Johnson said he and Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl both feel each other needs to make the NCAA in order to enhance the Iron Bowl of hoops. “Bruce (Pearl) and I talk about it,” Johnson said. “I know we’re supposed to be enemies, but when we see each other, those are the things we’re talking about. How can we get (both) our programs to become national powers, like our football teams are?
“I think it starts with recruiting, and then getting the most out of our players on the biggest stages. When both of us are in the (NCAA) tournament, then our rivalry’s going to mean a whole lot more. Fans are not going to be in to it when one team or both teams are 10-20. It’s just not going to work.”
He couldn’t name names, but Johnson said he feels “great” about his instate recruiting both this fall and for future classes.
Bama will host an exhibition vs. Faulkner Nov. 3.