Although Alabama begins its Southeastern Conference basketball schedule with three headline games, another athletic competition commanded attention at first-year coach Avery Johnson’s news conference Wednesday. A reporter asked if Johnson would attend “Monday’s game.” No one needed to know this was a reference to Alabama playing Clemson on Monday for college football’s national championship.
Johnson nodded his head and smiled as the reporter asked the question.
“That’s something that’s still up in the air . . . ,” he said. “Obviously, the game is significantly important. I’ve been riding with our football team the whole time. It’s just a difficult time of the year.”
Besides the planning, playing and digesting three heavy duty games to begin the SEC schedule, Johnson and staff are also recruiting, he said. A decision on going to the football game would come after the Tide plays Kentucky on Saturday, he said.
“We’re very confident,” Johnson said in reference to the football game. “Not overly confident. But we are very confident, and hopefully our guys will go out and play at a high level like they did in the season.
“If they do, I have all the confidence in the world they’ll get the job done.”
My relationship with Coach Saban is really good. He’s been very supportive of all the sports on campus. He’s welcomed my family and I to the University of Alabama Crimson Tide family.
Avery Johnson, Alabama basketball coach
Johnson spoke about football as something of an insider. Since becoming Alabama basketball coach last spring, he has forged a friendship with Tide football coach Nick Saban.
“My relationship with Coach Saban is really good,” Johnson said on an SEC teleconference on Monday. “He’s been very supportive of all the sports on campus. He’s welcomed my family and I to the University of Alabama Crimson Tide family.”
Saban has met with basketball prospects on recruiting visits and shared his thoughts about athletic and non-athletic matters.
“So he’s been a really good ally,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Saban first met at the basketball coach’s introductory news conference on April 8. Later that day, Johnson attended a spring football practice and spoke to the team, the Birmingham News’ AL.com website reported.
In late April, Johnson and Saban rode together in an annual promotional trip through Alabama called the Crimson Caravan. During times off stage, the two talked about such topics as management styles, getting the most out of players and the importance of “basketball IQ” in making split-second decisions on the court, Johnson told AL.com.
Johnson and Saban can cite basketball experience.
Johnson played 16 seasons in the NBA (8,817 points and an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 3-to-1). While playing for the Dallas Mavericks in 2003, Johnson became the 75th man to play 1,000 NBA games. He joined Calvin Murphy as the only players shorter than 6-foot tall to do it.
Saban? He is self-appointed floor general, referee and czar of regular pickup games in Coleman Coliseum.
“He still insists that I’m not going to be the point guard,” Johnson told AL.com in the spring.
Johnson attended Alabama’s victory over Michigan State in the playoff semifinals. After the game, he joined the team celebration on the field.
His players have asked Johnson about his relationship with Saban.
“I said we believe in the same things,” Johnson said. “Take care of the ball.”
Belief has not yet shown itself in games. Going into the Ole Miss game, Alabama had more turnovers (171) than assists (138) while winning nine of 12 non-conference games. Going into this week, the Tide ranked last among SEC teams in assist-to-turnover ratio and next-to-last in turnover margin.
The beginning to Alabama’s SEC schedule does not hold the promise of a quick fix. As of Thursday, the Tide’s first three league opponents had a combined record of 35-6.
Opponents in those first three games include two of the SEC’s three ranked teams, No. 9 Kentucky on Saturday and No. 22 South Carolina next Wednesday. South Carolina is the SEC’s only unbeaten team.
Before getting to South Carolina, Alabama will open its league schedule with two games inside of 48 hours: Facing an Ole Miss team inspired to play well in its new arena, then playing a presumably angry Kentucky team coming off a loss at LSU.
Johnson called it “an uphill challenge.”
But, he added, “the one thing I like about our team is they don’t make excuses. They don’t talk to referees. They just play. They’re a hard-working team. They’re very competitive.”
It’s easy to imagine Saban saying something similar about his team.
Kentucky at Alabama
6 p.m. (SEC Network)