North Florida - Wednesday, December 4th - December was the month to forget last season as Alabama bumbled through a 1-5 stretch. Injuries, a lack of leadership and nothing more than poor play all played a factor. That 1-5 stretch would hover over Alabama's NCAA tournament hopes for the remainder of the season, finally dumping the rain on our heads when the field was announced. December begins this season with a home game against North Florida, an A-Sun team expected to finish somewhere in the middle of that conference race. North Florida returns two starters in Beau Beech (7.9 ppg) and Travis Wallace (14.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg), but it will be their newcomers (7 total) that will determine how successful their season is.
@South Florida - Saturday, December 7th - Alabama's first true road game of the season will be a tricky one. South Florida was never in a position to compete on a consistent basis in the old Big East. Last season was a prime example of that as the Bulls followed up an NCAA tournament appearance in 2011-12 with only 12 wins overall and just 3 in conference. Needless to say, I think they're happy with the realignment that places them in the American conference where they should be much more competitive.
When previewing South Florida, you must start with Anthony Collins at the PG position. Collins is one of the best assist men in the college game (6.5 apg last season). He's also capable of scoring when needed (8.6 ppg) and is a good defender (1.5 spg). His match-up with Releford should be a great one. The other key player for USF will be Victor Rudd, a 6'9, 229 lb forward. The inside/outside game of Rudd (12.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg) can be a tough matchup, though he needs to improve his shooting percentages before he can take full advantage. In fact, the same could be said for the Bulls as a whole after they only averaged 58.8 ppg on 38.9% shooting.
USF head coach Stan Heath is also hoping for increased contributions from a number of returning players, most notably Musa Abdul-Aleem (only played in nine games last year due to injury), Martino Brock (5.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and Javontae Hawkins (4.5 ppg) as well as some newcomers, John Egbunu (6'10, 240 lb, rated in the top 100) and Chris Perry (6'8, 245 lb, also a top 100 player). There are plenty of question marks for this USF team, but stability at the PG position, athletes all over the floor and one of the most physical defenses in the country the last few years have them hopeful for a turnaround this season.
Charleston Southern - Saturday, December 14th - Charleston Southern returns to Tuscaloosa after playing Bama tough last season in a 59-46 loss. Charleston Southern won the Big South title a year ago, but fell in the conference tournament, having to settle for an NIT bid where they lost in the 1st round to Southern Miss. They return three starters and are once again a favorite in the Big South.
Charleston's backcourt is considered one of the best in the Big South thanks to Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper. Nimley may only be 5'8, but he had a fantastic 2012-13 season with averages of 15.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 5.0 apg. Harper also filled it up with averages of 15.3 ppg, 4.4 apg and 2.0 spg. And the next great Charleston Southern guard may be freshman Tre' Smith. The 4A South Carolina Player of the Year, Smith averaged 25.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 4.0 apg as a senior. It is imperative that Alabama keep those guys from getting into a groove.
CSU is not a very big team. Their center, Allie Fullah, is only 6'7 but he has a 7'1 wingspan and was third in the Big South in blocks at 1.3 per game. He will need to work on his scoring (4.0 ppg) and rebounding (3.8). The power forward, Paul Gombwer is only 6-6, but was effective last season (5.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg). The x-factor for this team could be Cedrick Bowen, a 6'5 forward. He averaged 10 and 6 before a stress fracture slowed him down and he finished with averages of 7.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg. In addition, two more newcomers could help in the front court. Will Saunders (played for the junior college champion, College of Central Florida) is a 6'7 stretch four who was a 40% 3Pt shooter last season. And Bakari Copeland is another under the radar freshman who averaged 23.5 ppg and 6.0 rpg as a high school senior.
Wichita State - Wednesday, December 18th - 2012-13 was quite the year for the Wichita State program. A 9 seed in last season's NCAA tournament, the Shockers lived up to their name and knocked off Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, LaSalle and Ohio State for the school's second Final Four appearance. They lost a tough one in the semifinals to eventual champion, Louisville, but it was hardly enough to dampen the excitement for the program after such a great end to a season. The run shined a spotlight on a program that, while solid for years, had toiled somewhat in the shadows of Creighton in the Missouri Valley. Now with Creighton moving on to the new Big East, Wichita State is the top dog in the neighborhood and returns enough talent from last season that another deep run through March is not out of the question.
Head coach Gregg Marshall's profile was also raised in the wake of the Final Four appearance. Already a respected coach due to his work at Winthrop and Wichita, the Final Four run has now put him at the top of the lists of many AD's should they find themselves in need of a new coach. That's assuming Marshall would want to leave Wichita. He has done and said nothing that would suggest he's leaving on the first train, and Wichita has been more than willing to sweeten the pot with raises, extensions, facility upgrades and the fan support, which is among the best in the sport. If Marshall does stay in Wichita, he's shown the chops necessary to make Wichita a national player for a very long time.
This game will be the first of a home and home series between the two programs. Alabama and Wichita State are quickly building a history with each other. The Shockers defeated Bama in the 2011 NIT final before Bama returned the favor the following season by defeating the Shockers in the Puerto Rico Tip Off event.
Wichita returns several key players from last year. First and foremost, there is Cleanthony Early, a 6'8 215 lb forward. Early is a versatile player who could probably play all five spots on the floor in a pinch. He was Wichita's best player down the stretch last season and is expected to be one of the better players in the country this year. He will be a difficult matchup for the Alabama defense. Also of note is Fred Vanvleet, a 5'11 190 lb guard, who really broke through in the tournament. While he wasn't a prolific scorer (4.3 ppg), he was clutch on the offensive end when the team needed him as well as being a great defender. Tekele Cotton, a 6'2 202 lb guard was a defensive terror in the tournament, shutting down the likes of Pitt's Trey Woodall, Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos and LaSalle's Ramon Galloway. More than likely, he will be tasked with defending Mr. Releford. Ron Baker, a 6'3 218 lb guard, will be the Shockers best perimeter threat, but is far from one dimensional and could prove to be the Shocker's second best player when all is said and done.
For all of the positives about this team, Wichita is not without question marks. For one, how will they handle being the team with a target on its back? Thanks to that Final Four run, no team will take them lightly and they will receive everyone's best shot on most nights. Secondly, replacing stalwart players in Carl Hall (a physical post scorer and rebounder) and Malcolm Armstead (the heart and soul of the team) will not happen overnight. Can Wichita get enough from its bench to sustain itself through the long season and into March? This will be another huge opportunity for our guys in front of what I hope will be a sellout crowd. Even if Wichita State do take a slight step back, they still look like the Missouri Valley champ and NCAA team on paper. In other words, it's another opportunity for a quality win.
Xavier - Saturday, December 21st -Yet another reminder that Alabama's non-conference schedule will not have a lot of dull moments. Xavier has been one of the most consistent programs in the last 25 years. From Pete Gillen to Skip Prosser to Thad Matta to Sean Miller and now Chris Mack, Xavier has been a constant presence in March. That's why last season was so tough for the Xavier program. The Musketeers struggled to a 17-14 record and missed the postseason (NCAA or NIT) for the first time since 2004-05, and just the second time since 1995-96. Despite their struggles, the perception of the Xavier program was not diminished as the new Big East conference came calling and Xavier left the A-10. It was just one more reminder that this program can no longer be considered a mid-major. This will be yet another early challenge for Alabama, but these type of high profile home games are necessary wins if Bama is going to make some noise this season.
When it comes to players, Semaj Christon receives first billing for Xavier. A 6'3 guard, Christon made an immediate impact as a freshman, tallying 15.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.6 apg and 1.5 spg. It's scary to think what kind of scorer Christon will be if he improves his shooting from 3 (only 25% last season). He will be among the best guards Bama will see this year so containing him will be pivotal.
However, Christon will need some help. That help should come in the form of a trio of players, Matt Stainbrook (a 6'10 260 lb transfer from Western Michigan who averaged 11.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg in 2011-12), Dee Davis (8.2 ppg, 3.4 apg) and Myles Davis (a 6'2 freshman guard that was expected to be an impact last season, but was ruled ineligible by the NCAA). Other guys who can make an impact are Justin Martin (6'6, 205 lb, 7.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Isaiah Philmore (6'8, 230 lb, 7.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg).
@UCLA - Saturday, December 28th - Grant and co. head to the land of sunshine for a date with the Bruins. Most would agree that one of the greatest wins in Alabama basketball history took place at Pauley Pavilion in 1983 when Alabama defeated #1 ranked UCLA by a score of 70-67, a game that took place mere days after the passing of Bear Bryant. A win there this season wouldn't quite match that feat, but it would certainly be a welcoming resume boost if Bama can get it done.
UCLA made a coaching change in the offseason, cutting ties with Ben Howland and hiring Steve Alford away from New Mexico. The hire didn't exactly move mountains. In fact, one could say that the UCLA fanbase was less than apathetic. Not that Alford has a bad resume. He's won everywhere he's been, but it's his postseason record that has fans in Westwood nervous. In his coaching stops at Southwest Missouri State (now just Missouri State), Iowa and New Mexico, only one of his teams (98-99 Missouri State) has made it to the second weekend of the tournament. That wouldn't be an issue at many schools, but at UCLA, where they don't even hang Final Four banners, postseason results like that could be a cause for concern. In addition to that, a guy who has typically shied away from the spotlight will now find himself under one of the brightest glares in the country. How will he handle it? Can he successfully recruit the region? This much is certain: Alford will be at UCLA for at least three years thanks to a buyout clause in his contract that will require Alford or UCLA to pay $10.4 million if either party decides to go in another direction within those three years.
One thing in Alford's favor in his first season is that he will have some good players to work with. The best of the bunch is probably Jordan Adams. He was arguably the best player for the Bruins last season, even with the presence of Shabazz Muhammad. Adams averaged 15.3 ppg, but was lost for the season in the Pac 12 tournament to a foot injury. Without him, the Bruins struggled in the Pac 12 final against Oregon as well as their first round loss to Minnesota in the NCAA tournament. Due to the injury, Adams may be limited early, but should be back to 100% by the time Bama rolls into town.
Another guy to keep an eye on is 6'9 sophomore, Kyle Anderson. Anderson is one of the more versatile players in the country, capable of playing around the rim when necessary, but is much more comfortable on the perimeter, with the skills to play the point if needed. His stats last season were impressive - 9.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg and 3.5 apg. The only weakness he showed last season was his inability to shoot (a dismal 21% from 3). Having already expressed his intentions to enter the draft at season's end, Anderson will be expected to carry a heavy load for this Bruin team.
The biggest question mark for this team will be who plays the point now that Larry Drew II has moved on. Early candidates include the aforementioned Anderson, Bryce Alford (coach's son) and Zach Levin, though none of them are true point guards. Another possibility could be Norman Powell (6.1 ppg). Post play will also be a priority. UCLA really struggled on the boards last season, and with the Pac 12 improving across the board in size and skill, Alford will need production from his big men. The most intriguing player could be Tony Parker, a highly regarded high school recruit that struggled to gain a foothold in his freshman season with averages of 2.4 ppg and 1.2 rpg. However, the talent is certainly there if he buys in. The word over the summer is that he has trimmed down and is physically in better shape to make an impact. The other options are the 6'10 Wear twins - David and Travis - who were solid a year ago but must increase their production if UCLA is to contend for the Pac 12 crown. David averaged 7.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg while Travis averaged 10.9, 5.2 rpg. They're not exactly bruisers either, both preferring to face the basket. For that, Alford will have to count on production from freshmen, Noah Allen (6'6, averaged 18.0 ppg/14.0 rpg in high school) and Wanaah Bail (6'9, averaged 18.5 ppg/12.0 rpg in high school), who spent last season at a prep school after splitting Texas Tech in the wake of the Billy Gillespie problems there.
This UCLA team is actually a lot like Alabama this season, at least on paper. There's not a lot of depth, but if they can stay healthy, there is enough talent there to win some games and be where they want to be in March. In other words, this looks like a close game in terms of the talent on both teams.