Don't look now but the University of Alabama basketball team is on a roll. Led by first-year head coach and former San Antonio Spur point guard Avery Johnson, the Crimson Tide is currently riding a five-game winning streak, following a victory over Winthrop, 72-60, Wednesday night in Tuscaloosa. While the basketball program at Alabama will, most likely, never threaten the dominance of football in the Heart of Dixie, Johnson is getting people talking about the program, one of the bigger underachievers of late in the SEC.
Johnson took over an Alabama program that, under former head coach Anthony Grant from 2009-2015, advanced to only NCAA Tournament in 2012, losing to Creighton in the opening round, and three NIT Tournaments. After firing Grant following the conclusion of the 2015 season, Alabama tapped "the Little General" to take over the Crimson Tide basketball program. Johnson has brought his NBA pedigree and reputation as a tough-as-nail competitor to Tuscaloosa and, while it's still early in his tenure, seems to have Tide hoops heading in the right direction.
Despite the five-game win streak, the 2015-16 season didn't get off to the best of starts. After opening the season with a seven-point win over Kennesaw State in mid-November, the Tide was absolutely embarrassed on November 17, losing to Dayton by the score of 80-48, the most lopsided score in an Alabama loss in 15 years. Since coming to Alabama in April, Johnson has consistently said the 2015-16 campaign would be one filled with challenges. "We have a long ways to go," Johnson said in an al.com interview following the loss to Dayton. "People talk about Rome wasn't built in a day. Our basketball team was not going to be built in a game or two. This season is a journey."
Following a loss on November 26 loss to #23 Xavier, 64-45, something must have clicked. Since then, the Tide has improved to 7-2 and has quality wins over #20 Wichita State, #17 Notre Dame, and Clemson, a game in which the Tide squandered a commanding lead but came from behind late to get the win, 51-50.
Johnson, for all intents-and-purposes, appears to be the basketball counterpoint to head football coach Nick Saban. A devout Christian with a high-profile career as a player and a coach, Johnson is an extremely competitive person, who says that his will to win is reflected in his faith in Christ, a characteristic he wants to instill in his young team at Alabama. "My standards are so high because of who I serve but it doesn't put any water on my fire for winning. I'm still an intense person. You can be intense and saved. You can compete and still be saved," Johnson said in a 2011 interview with beliefnet.com. "Players will run through a wall for you if they think you care. I want them to feel that they are better prepared to win on and off the court because of their time with me. I just want to help people become winners. That's what I'm about. I'm about winning."
Alabama hosts the Oregon Ducks in the Vulcan Classic, presented by BBVA Compass, in Birmingham, Alabama, on Monday, Dec. 21, at 9 p.m. EST.