TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When it comes to tough, gritty players for Alabama basketball, it's hard to find someone that fits that category better than senior forward James Rojas.
After spending the first half of the season on the bench due to an ACL injury that he suffered last summer that required surgery, Rojas returned to the court last Saturday in the Crimson Tide's 78-76 loss at Mississippi State. While Alabama didn't win the game, Rojas' 17 minutes on the court were a reminder of the blue-collar basketball that the Crimson Tide has been known for since coach Nate Oats' arrival in Tuscaloosa.
It's no small secret that Alabama has been underperforming since conference play started. The Crimson Tide has now lost three games in a row and has lost five of its last eight. After being ranked as high as No. 6 in the AP Top 25, Alabama now sits unranked for the first time in 19-consecutive weeks of polls.
However, Rojas' return could be exactly what the Crimson Tide needs. After two weeks of basketball where the team showed lackluster effort, Oats believes that Rojas' return ignited a spark of toughness among his players.
"Yeah I definitely think it did," Oats said on Tuesday via Zoom. "I told our guys there's levels to how hard you play, and I think when he came in I think he exposed the fact that this is how hard we should have been playing. Some of you guys that think you were playing hard — we talk about max effort, it's supposed to be as much as you can give — no, you weren't giving as much as you can give because he just came in and showed how hard we have to play to win games in this league. And it exposed some other guys and I think he went really hard in practice these two days.
"I expect him to be in the rotation a lot sooner in this game than he was the last game."
In his return against the Bulldogs, Rojas totaled six points and two rebounds while also recording two steals. Both of his rebounds were on the offensive end of the court — a stat that Alabama has been significantly outmatched in during its losing streak — and he finished the game with a plus/minus of 1.
Oats isn't the only one aware of the spark that Rojas brings to a quickly-fading Alabama squad.
"Just his toughness, like, we knew as soon as he came into the game he was going to have his impact on it immediately," senior guard Keon Ellis said. "Just him being tough, hustling, playing hard — I think that just changed how we thought playing hard is. He just came in and got his hands on a couple of balls, grabbed some rebounds and made some tough plays to show us that we have to take it to another level."
Alabama still has a tough schedule left to play this season. After its first 17 games, the Crimson Tide currently holds a record of 11-6. While its big wins against No. 3 Gonzaga and No. 12 Houston still hold a lot of weight, its bad losses to unranked teams are starting to overshadow the impressive start to the season that the program had during a gauntlet slate of non-conference games.
The schedule doesn't get any easier from here on out. On Wednesday, Alabama will host No. 13 LSU in Coleman Coliseum. In a rematch of the 2021 SEC Tournament Championship Game, the Tigers will be out for blood. If the Crimson Tide doesn't show a spark of toughness, then Alabama could be leaving its home court with its fourth-consecutive loss.
Should the Crimson Tide play with toughness, Rojas' return will likely have played a significant factor in that. With his hard-nosed effort both in games and on the practice court, it seems that he's already made an impact.
"Just about him being out, and him kinda being our leader off the court, he just provided a great spark energy-wise," sophomore forward Darius Miles said. "Toughness, that's pretty much what people talk about when they talk about our team is just 'Where's the toughness factor?' So the fact that he showed that [after] being out for so long, I think it gave our team, like, a little spark especially in these last two days of practice. You could see, like, the energy, the toughness, physicality and things like that picking up so it was good to have him back."