It's 35 days until college basketball returns (I'm not sure if I should be excited for the return of basketball or distressed over how quickly the months have passed by in my own life). With the season just around the corner let's take a look at the schedule, which starts fast and doesn't dip much afterward. An apology up front. Due to the number of potential match-ups in the NIT Tipoff, this post is rather long.
Oklahoma - Friday, November 8th - Alabama kicks off the 2013-14 season with a real challenge in the Oklahoma Sooners. This game is part of the Tip-Off Showcase in Dallas at the American Airlines Center. It's also a concerted effort by college basketball to tip off its season with a little more fanfare, similar to the handful of high profile college football games that put a little zest into its opening weekend.
Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger enters his third season in Norman. In his second season, he guided the program to the NCAA tournament. With this accomplishment, Kruger became the first coach in D-1 history to take five different programs to the tournament. While this achievement proves Kruger's worth as a basketball coach, it also proves that his career has been quite nomadic. Oklahoma probably isn't his final stop, but as long as he keeps guiding teams to the tournament, he'll be welcomed by AD's with open arms.
Returning to the tournament this season could be tricky for the Sooners as they lost four of their top six scorers, while also welcoming in seven newcomers. The backbone of this Oklahoma team will lay in its backcourt, highlighted by four returning guards in Cameron Clark (6'7, 209 lb), Isaiah Cousins (6'4, 181), Buddy Hield (6'4, 200) and Je'lon Hornbreak (6'4, 186). Add incoming freshman Frank Booker (6'4, 201), expected to be a contributor, and that's quite a size advantage for Oklahoma in its backcourt. With the size, experience and talent that Oklahoma has at the position, it won't be surprising if Kruger chooses to go with a 4-guard line-up most nights.
The frontcourt has question marks, but there are certainly possibilities. Leading the way will be Ryan Spangler, a 6'8, 230 lb forward that transferred from Gonzaga. Other key guys could be D.J. Bennett (6'8, 202), who redshirted last season, and JC transfer, Keshaun Hamilton (6'10, 270). This team might be at its most vulnerable early as Kruger sorts out his roster. It's a great opportunity for Bama to notch a quality win that may look very good in March.
Texas Tech - Thursday, November 14th - Alabama returns to Tuscaloosa for their home opener against another Big 12 school in Texas Tech. It's a return trip for Tech after Bama traveled to Lubbock a year ago. ESPN decided to be lazy and shoehorned it into the SEC/Big 12 Challenge slate of games. Tech made one of the more interesting coaching hires of the offseason by plucking Tubby Smith following Smith's head-scratching firing at Minnesota on the heels of an NCAA appearance in which Smith led his team to a first round win over UCLA before losing to Florida. It is the hope in Lubbock that Tubby will bring some much needed momentum to a program that hasn't had much to cheer about since Bobby Knight retired in 2008.
The biggest challenge for Bama could be the inside trio of Jaye Crockett, Jordan Tolbert and Dejan Kravic, who totaled 30.5 ppg and 17.3 rpg last season. Also of note is Dusty Hannahs, a 6'4 guard who will be Tech's primary deep threat. The most important newcomer appears to be a JC recruit, Robert Turner, who is slated to be the starting PG. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Tubby Smith - his teams are usually well-prepared and give great effort - but this Tech team is projected to finish near the bottom of the Big 12 and probably needs a couple of good recruiting classes before it makes a significant jump in their conference.
Stillman - Monday, November 18th - The first game in the NIT Season Tipoff finds Alabama matched up with a neighbor in Stillman College, one of two D-2 schools (the other being Metro State College from Denver) selected by the event organizers to take part in this tournament. Last season, Alabama-Huntsville made a splash by defeating their first round D-1 opponent, North Texas.
The game won't do much for Bama's RPI/SOS if they win, but a loss would be devastating. The meat of this event awaits Alabama in Madison Square Garden, but first they must win the two games in T-town in order to advance. A loss in one of the two games would condemn Alabama to two more home games, but not against the necessary competition that will move the meter much in Bama's favor come March. A trip to MSG is absolutely vital for this Tide team when it comes to March. Win and advance; it's that simple. Stillman had a solid 2012-13 season in which they finished with an 18-10 record. They return four of their top five scorers.
McNeese State/Georgia State - Tuesday, November 19th - McNeese State returns three starters and is projected to finish anywhere from 2nd to 8th in the Southland Conference, depending on what publication you're reading. In addition to those three starters, McNeese also returns several reserve players who started multiple games at some point last season, making this a very experienced team. Players to keep an eye on for McNeese are Kevin Hardy (a 6'2 stat-stuffing guard that averaged 9.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 4.5 apg, 2.2 spg and 1.2 bpg last season), Craig McFerrin (6'7, 230 lb post player; 8.7 ppg and 6.5 rpg) and Ledrick Eackles (9.2 ppg, 43% from 3). Another player who could have been a concern is Desharick Guidry (12.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 40% 3PT), but the word is he's been ruled academically ineligible for the fall semester.
Georgia State has a formidable line-up that could be the best in the Sun Belt Conference (the program's first year in the conference) when all is said and done. This team has some real star power in guys like R.J. Hunter (17.5 ppg, CAA freshman of the year), Devonta White (14.5 ppg), and Manny Atkins (14.5 ppg, Virginia Tech transfer). The program also received a gift from the NCAA when it approved Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow's hardship waiver to play immediately. Harrow had his ups and downs at both N.C. State and Kentucky, but I think the lack of unfair expectations at Georgia State should benefit him. And if that wasn't enough, the program also adds Curtis Washington (6'9, 240 lb), a redshirt junior that transferred from USC. With Georgia State's mix of size, athleticism and scoring ability, this could be the epitome of a trap game should Alabama be matched up with the Panthers.
Note that should Alabama lose one of these first two games, they would play in the consolation round on November 25th and 26th in Tuscaloosa. Here's hoping that doesn't happen.
Duke - Wednesday, November 27th - I'm going to go out on a rather heavy limb and put Duke in one semifinal in MSG. The Blue Devils have to beat some combination of UNC Asheville, Norfolk State or East Carolina to reach New York. I just don't see any of those teams knocking off the Blue Devils in Cameron. As usual, Duke is a legitimate top 10 team and is expected to make a run towards yet another Final Four. An opportunity to play a program like Duke doesn't come along every day so Alabama really needs to find a way to be in this game. Love 'em or hate 'em, the Dukies have been among the cream of the crop in the sport. Coach K is, in my opinion, the greatest coach in college basketball history. To maintain a program the way he has in an age of parity in the sport (while also winning gold at the Olympics) is extremely impressive.
Anthony Grant's signature win as a head coach was the NCAA Tournament win over Duke when he was at VCU. If he's able to do it twice in a row, it would be one of the biggest wins in Alabama basketball history. In order to do that, Bama will have to overcome a roster loaded with next level talent like Jabari Parker (a freshman phenom expected to be a lottery pick), Rodney Hood (a Mississippi State transfer who has the potential to be a 1st round draft pick) and Rasheed Sulaimon (criminally underrated among freshmen a year ago, Sulaimon was, at times, Duke's best player last season). Duke is also as deep as they've been in some time with returning experience (Quinn Cook, Andre Dawkins, Tyler Thornton) and role players who could break out this season (Josh Hairston, Amile Jefferson, Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee). Win or lose, I would love to see how Bama could match up with a power like Duke. Not to mention it would be an RPI bump that wouldn't diminish over the course of the season.
Arizona/Rutgers/Canisius/Elon/Drexel - Friday, November 29th - Beating a program like Duke will be a tall task for Bama. If they are able to do it, chances are they will meet up with yet another top 10 power in Arizona. The Wildcats are receiving a lot of preseason love from the college basketball press. Some are even picking them as a potential darkhorse for the national title despite the fact this team will have to rely on a number of young players to reach that summit.
Arizona is the heavy favorite in the Pac 12 thanks to an impressive group of players such as Aaron Gordon (a likely one and done prospect who could also be an All-American if things click), Nick Johnson (a junior and one of the few upperclassmen), Brandon Ashley (McDonald's AA), Rondae Hollis Jefferson (another freak athlete whose time in Tuscon may be limited), Kaleb Tarczewski (a 7-footer who could be primed for a breakout sophomore season) and Duquesne transfer, T.J. McConnell (due to the lack of depth at the PG position, he could prove to be the x-factor for this team). Arizona head coach Sean Miller has an embarrassment of riches on the roster. The question is can he fulfill the expectations of Arizona fans expecting the program's best season since Lute Olson? One thing is certain: the college basketball press isn't shy about voicing its hope that Arizona and Duke meet in the final. How sweet would it be if our guys spoiled the party?
Rutgers may have the toughest path to New York of all the host schools. In their first game they will be matched up against a Canisius team expected to be a contender in the MAAC conference followed up by Elon (the early favorite in the Southern Conference) or Drexel (a favorite in the Colonial). All of this while transitioning to a new coaching staff led by Eddie Jordan, a former Rutgers player who left a job in the pros to rebuild his alma mater in the wake of the Mike Rice debacle last season. Jordan has already gotten off to a good start by keeping a portion of the roster intact after a couple of players transferred once Rice was fired. Jordan's recruiting efforts are also off to a promising start. It seems possible that Jordan will make Rutgers competitive, perhaps as early as this season. However, they could suffer some bumps in the road along the way.
Should Rutgers meet Alabama, the Rutgers players to watch are Myles Mack (an under appreciated player very much in the Releford mold), Jerome Seagears (he transferred to Auburn, but ultimately decided to come back. I guess Jersey is more lovely than the plains), Kadeem Jack (6'9, 230 lb post player who has shown flashes of greatness, but has yet to put it all together), Wally Judge (6'9, 250 lb transfer from Kansas State. Like Jack, he has also struggled to produce on a consistent basis), J.J. Moore (a transfer from Pitt expected to bring some needed toughness and winning experience to a program that hasn't experienced much) and Kerwin Okaro (Iowa State transfer who provides some much needed depth).
The MAAC conference could produce this year's Cinderella in March. If nothing else, it should be a great conference race as over half the league should be a strong contender to win it. Canisius returns three starters to a team that won 20 games a season ago, competing in the College Insider tournament. Jim Baron, formerly the coach at Rhode Island, did wonders in his first season (Canisius went from 5 to 20 wins) and is hoping to take the next step this season. The player to watch is Billy Baron, the coach's son. Baron, a 6'2 guard who transferred from Rhode Island with his father, averaged 17.2 ppg, 4 rpg, and 5 apg last season. His partner in the backcourt isn;t too shabby either. Chris Perez, a transfer from Stetson, comes in for one year after averaging 15.1 ppg last season at Stetson. Up front, Jordan Heath (6'10, 9.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Chris Manhertz (7.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg) will have to hold their own, but Canisius will rise or fall on the backs of their guards.
Elon appears to be the consensus favorite in the Southern conference. That optimism is easy to understand as Elon returns all five starters from a team that won 21 games last season. Elon's frontcourt should be competitive with 6'10 Lucas Troutman (15.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and 6'7 Ryley Beaumont (11.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg). Jack Isenbarger (13.2 ppg) and Sebastian Koch (9.6 ppg) return in the backcourt. This Elon team won't wow you with athleticism or gaudy stats, but they are the classic mid-major team spilling over with experience and confidence that will fight ya until the final second. They will be a pain in the neck for any opponent.
And finally, we have Drexel. This is an important season for Drexel head coach Bruiser Flint after a season filled with expectations turned into a 13-18 disappointment a year ago. One thing in Drexel's favor is they should have the best backcourt tandem in the Colonial, highlighted by Chris Fouch (a 1,000 point career scorer, he missed all but three games last season after breaking his ankle), Frantz Massenat (14.7 ppg, 4.2 apg), and Damion Lee (17.1 ppg, 5 rpg). As good as the backcourt is, the frontcourt is full of questions. If those questions are answered, this Drexel team could be very tough.