You can talk about what Alabama lost from one of the best teams in school history, but any discussion about what the reigning dual SEC champions might do for an encore starts with this: Jaden Shackelford came back.
He could've turned pro or transferred. He actually put his name in the NBA Draft hat and the transfer portal before deciding to return for his junior season in Tuscaloosa. How did head coach Nate Oats react to the return of his leading scorer?
"Welcome back with open arms."
Welcome to the notion that one of the best seasons in Alabama history, a 26-7 run that included SEC regular-season and tournament championships and a rush to the Sweet 16, wasn't the pinnacle but a new plateau. Without four of its top six scorers from last season, without SEC player of the year Herbert Jones and No. 12 overall NBA Draft pick Josh Primo and a special senior class, the Crimson Tide is the preseason pick to finish as runner-up this year.
Some of the names on the back of the jerseys have been replaced by a rather large target.
"The expectations are high," Oats said during Alabama's Media Day. "People are going to be shooting for us. We can't afford to have an off night. Our guys have to realize when they walk into a gym now, after winning the SEC last year, people are going to be gunning for us. We're going to have a bigger target on our back, and we're going to have to play that way."
Alabama will return fire with another elite group of perimeter players that starts with Shackelford and Jahvon Quinerly, both of whom were selected preseason first-team All-SEC. They finished 1-2 in scoring for the Tide last season: Shackelford - whom Oats called "one of the more talented
offensive players in the country" - at 14 points a game, Quinerly - last year's SEC Tournament MVP - at 12.9.
If that backcourt weren't impressive enough, Alabama added 6-3, 195-pound five-star JD Davison, whom 247 Sports ranked as the No. 9 player and No. 1 point guard in the Class of 2021. Oats has been impressed with Davison through 15 preseason practices.
"He wants to be great," Oats said. "He wants to be coached. He wants you to make him better. He's more talkative than you think, and his basketball IQ is pretty high. Combination of all that with the athletic ability he's got and the skill level he's got, he's going to be really good for us."
He's also going to team with Shackelford and Quinerly in a three-guard set that could wreak havoc on opponent matchups.
"They're going to be on the floor a lot together," Oats said. "We play a lot of guards. If your third-best defender is going to be on either Quinerly, Shackelford or JD, I don't know which one you put your third-best perimeter defender on. That's going to be a major mismatch."
Imagine what may happen to defenses when Oats makes good on his promise to play a four-guard lineup with 6-6 senior Keon Ellis, a key returnee from last season who started the last five games.
"I think you can win in college playing multiple guards," Oats said.
Alabama did it last year. Expect the Tide to make a run at doing it again.