No. 14 Alabama rides tide of epic season into opener

NCAA Men's Basketball

Alabama head coach Nate Oats hopes his club learned a little something from its exhibition win last month.

The No. 14 Crimson Tide rallied past Louisiana for a 73-68 win in a home charity contest, but the games start counting for real on Tuesday.

Oats’ squad opens the 2021-22 season hosting another school from the bayou area – Louisiana Tech – and the Southeastern Conference team has high expectations. Alabama had its best season in 35 years last year.

In the Oct. 24 exhibition contest, Tide players shook off the rust after trailing for 26:38 of game time and pulled past the Ragin’ Cajuns.

“It was a perfect exhibition game in my opinion,” said Oats, who is starting his third year on the Alabama bench. “Louisiana is really good. They are going to battle you and stretch you all game long.”

Last year, Oats led the Tuscaloosa school to its best record since the 1986-87 season — the Tide rolled to a 28-5 mark then and lost in an NCAA regional semifinal — and left an indelible impression along the way.

The team posted a 26-7 overall record, went 16-2 in SEC play, secured the conference’s regular-season and tournament titles and ended up ranked No. 5 – matched its highest ranking ever to end a campaign.

Alabama also made its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2004.

Its standing in the preseason Top 25 is its first since 2011.

But Oats lost SEC Player of the Year Herb Jones and Josh Primo among others. Alabama added strong talent that should help right away.

Freshman guard JD Davison was the 12th-ranked player in the 2021 recruiting class, and forward Noah Gurley transferred in from Furman.

Forward Alex Tchikou returns after missing last season with a torn ACL, and leading scorer Jaden Shackleford (14 points per game) returns for his third season.

“I thought our defense played outstanding tonight,” he said after his squad forced 25 Louisiana turnovers. “To figure out how to win a game against a very good team … really speaks to the culture we’ve built around defense.”

The Bulldogs were victorious in their own exhibition, beating visiting Mississippi College 86-50 behind a strong performance by Kenneth Lofton Jr.

Coach Eric Konkol will ride the powerful Lofton – a 6-foot-7, 275-pound forward – who was the Conference USA Freshman of the Year and Third Team All-Conference-USA.

In his first season, the Port Arthur, Tex., native scored a team-high 387 points (12.1 points per game) and led the team in double-digit production in points (22 games).

Lofton – who is not the son of the former Major League Baseball outfielder – played guard before a late growth spurt.

However, his father had insisted he learn how to play in the post before Lofton grew.

“When I played guard (in high school), I knew how to play the post pretty good,” Kenneth Lofton Jr. told the Port Arthur News. “My dad used to show me videos of Hakeem Olajuwon. I just happened to grow. I know how to handle the ball and make plays.”

The Bulldogs finished 24-8 last season and won their first two games in the NIT, beating Ole Miss and Western Kentucky.

–Field Level Media

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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