December 1st: @Cincinnati - After his first four seasons, Mick Cronin was firmly on the hot seat. His best season up to that point had been a 19-win season that ended in the second round of the NIT. The Bearcat fans loved Bob Huggins, and as they watched his continued success at K-State and West Virginia, it was difficult for them to embrace Cronin. To a large extent, they still haven't embraced Cronin, but he's no longer on the hot seat following consecutive 26-win seasons that ended in the 2nd round and Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. Cronin will have to replace some departed contributors from last season's team, but this will still be a challenging road contest for Alabama. Cincinnati plays a very physical brand of basketball (ask Xavier) and will have one of the better backcourts that Alabama will face in Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick.
December 5th: Dayton - Through mid-January last season it appeared as if Dayton would be a surprise NCAA Tournament team in Archie Miller's first season as head coach. On January 21st, Dayton pounded Xavier, resulting in a 14-5 overall mark and a 4-1 start in A-10 play. Their resume also included impressive wins @Temple, St. Louis, Ole Miss, Minnesota and Alabama. And then it all fell apart as Dayton finished the season with a 6-7 record before bowing out in the NIT first round against Iowa. The Flyers lost some key contributors from last season's roster, but return enough talent to be a serious pain in the neck on any given night.
December 15th: @VCU - The first weeks of December will serve as a barometer of how good Alabama can be this season. Over the first two and a half weeks of the month, Bama will play three out of four games on the road against quality competition as well as the home game with a tough Dayton team. In my opinion, this game will be the toughest of the bunch. Yes, Alabama will play power conference teams in Oregon State, Purdue/Villanova, Cincinnati and Texas Tech before SEC play begins. But neutral site games in MSG and even true road games at Cincinnati and Texas Tech will not match the environment that Bama will face in Richmond. The VCU students and fans have really embraced this program in recent years, resulting in a great home atmosphere that makes it very difficult for visiting teams to exit with a win. VCU has also been a model of consistency, be it under the guidance of Jeff Capel, Anthony Grant or now Shaka Smart. Smart led the VCU program on a historic run to the Final Four two seasons ago. That run in part has helped them inch closer to the Big Boys Club in the form of an invitation and acceptance to the A-10 conference. VCU joins the underrated league as a readymade contender, more than capable of winning the conference title in their first season. VCU gave Alabama a run for its money last season in Tuscaloosa and will provide a significant challenge again.
December 19th: Texas Tech - I always felt that Billy Clyde moved too fast, too soon in his head coaching ascension. While UTEP to Texas A&M may have seemed like a logical progression, he was out of his element at Kentucky. That's nothing to be ashamed of, there are many great coaches that would be out of their element in Lexington. It's just the nature of the beast in that town. Nevertheless, despite his ouster at UK after only two seasons and his highly publicized personal issues, there was never a consensus opinion that Gillespie didn't have the coaching chops to get back on his feet. It was merely a matter of finding a good fit after the Kentucky debacle. His hire as Texas Tech's basketball coach appeared to be a good hire for both the man and the Tech program. Unfortunately, Pat Knight and Co. didn't leave much in the cupboard and Tech struggled to a woeful 8-23 record (1-17 in conference!) in Gillespie's first season. After a season like that, one had to figure there was nowhere to go but up for the Red Raiders. That is until last week when a group of Tech players reported alleged mistreatment at the hands of Gillespie to the AD. At the same time, Gillespie checked himself into a Lubbock hospital as rumors began to swirl about his job future. Those rumors continue to swirl as Gillespie has checked himself into the Mayo Clinic to treat high blood pressure. His future as head coach appears to be very tenuous however with players declaring they won't return to the team if Gillespie is retained along with a whole heaping helping of negative media attention. Whether these player allegations are true or not, the school that infamously fired Mike Leach for allegedly locking a kid in a closet will no doubt feel pressure to make a quick decision about a coach whose own reported behavior towards players makes Leach's closet stunt look as innocuous as it actually was. Who is in uniform or on the bench for Tech when Alabama arrives in Lubbock is a mystery right now, but it appears whatever progress Tech basketball fans were hoping for in Gillespie's second year has been momentarily curtailed.
December 22nd: Mercer - One may be inclined to overlook Mercer. Don't. Last year the program had the best season in school history, winning 27 games en route to capturing the CollegeInsider.com postseason tournament championship. Mercer's final three wins in the event all came on the road against quality programs, Old Dominion, Fairfield and Utah State, an especially tough venue to come out of with a win. With four starters returning, five of their top six scorers, and with Belmont moving to the Ohio Valley conference, Mercer will likely be the preseason favorite in the Atlantic Sun conference. With Alabama coming off of what could be four straight tough games, they could be primed for a trap game.
December 30th: Tulane - I remember Tulane enjoyed some sustained basketball success in the 90s; the program was selected to three NCAA tournaments during the decade. In recent years, it's been another story. Tulane has finished at or near the bottom of the C-USA standings the last three seasons. There isn't a lot of confidence that will change this season.