With the first game of the season against Trevecca Nazarene tomorrow night, it's time to conclude the schedule preview by looking at the final stretch of games that Alabama will play during February and early March.
February 2nd, 2016 - at Mississippi State - You have to give Mississippi State credit. Rick Ray was a first class guy, and I believe he's a good coach, but it was obvious he was struggling to tunnel out of the mess that Rick Stansbury left the program in. Realizing this, the administration made a change, and possibly made the best hire in the sport in the offseason. Bringing a coach with Howland's resume to Starkville was a home run for the school. This conference is filling up fast with quality coaches, but Howland is quickly making moves that could put him and this Mississippi State program at the top. Howland showed no rust in quickly signing 5 star guard Malik Newman, and already has a potential top five recruiting class on tap for 2016. The man is putting in work, and the circumstances are such that there may not be much rebuilding for him to do in Starkville. The 15-16 team will have a rare number of experienced players for a first year coaching staff as the program returns 6 of the top 8 scorers from a year ago, including Craig Sword (11.3 ppg, 1.0 spg), Gavin Ware (10.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.1 bpg) and Fred Thomas (9.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg). Throw in a talented recruiting class led by the aforementioned Newman and 4 star Quinndary Weatherspoon, and some college basketball media types think this Mississippi State team could be a darkhorse in the league. That may be a little premature for a program that has only won 13 conference games in the last three seasons; however, the NIT is not an unfair expectation. Alabama will play Mississippi State again a couple of weeks after this game.
February 6th, 2016 - Missouri - A first season can't go much worse than it did for Missouri head coach Kim Anderson. Missouri won 9 games, only 3 in conference, while losing two of their top three scorers to transfer following the season, and their second-leading scorer to a knee injury during the season. Typically, coaches get a year or two before the pressure picks up from the fanbase and local media. But Anderson finds himself on the hot seat early, and he's going to have to find a way to build some momentum and instill confidence in a fanbase that really hasn't had much to cheer about since Mike Anderson left for the green, green grass of Fayetteville. Unfortunately, expectations for this Missouri team are not high. The media has picked them to finish 14th, and that's not an unfair projection when trying to determine who the stars will be for this team, and what the identity of this team will be. The team last season was marred by horrible chemistry so fixing that will be the first step towards Missouri overcoming the low expectation. The top returning scorer is Wes Clark (10.1 ppg, 3.1 apg, 1.7 spg). He was having a solid season before that knee injury ended his season after 23 games. Including Clark, 4 of the top 8 scorers return. This is a young team with only one senior so young players will have to step up quickly. Keep an eye on sophomore Jakeenan Gant. He only averaged 14 minutes per game last season, but he shot 51% from the field and 72% from the free throw line. He could be primed for a breakout season. Another player to watch is K.J. Walton, a 4 star freshman expected to contribute early and often. Namon Wright (6.8 ppg, 38% 3pt) could be an x-factor for this team.
February 10th, 2016 - Texas A&M - Vanderbilt and LSU are getting most of the attention when it comes to Kentucky's biggest challenger, but I find A&M the most intriguing. They will have a nice mix of veterans and talented young players this season. On paper, this is as good of an A&M basketball team as they've had in some years. Let's start with the returning players. Only 4 of the top 8 scorers return, but those four players are very good. Danuel House (14.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.1 apg) was playing some of the best basketball in the league last season when injuries sidelined him, consequently playing a part in A&M slipping out of the NCAA Tournament when it appeared they had a spot locked up in mid-February. Jalen Jones (13.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.0 spg) was under the radar, but he's a solid player that does a lot of little things to help a team win. Alex Caruso (9.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.5 apg, 2.1 spg) has led the conference in assists the past two seasons, but needs to be more assertive when it comes to shooting the ball. Alex Robinson had a solid freshman season (5.2 ppg, 2.6 apg), and will be counted on to do more this season. The newcomers to this team will be important if A&M is going to return to the NCAA Tournament. Anthony Collins follows in House and Jones' footsteps as a potential impact transfer. Collins is a graduate transfer from South Florida, where he averaged 5.6 apg in three seasons (lost one season to injury), and was the driving force in South Florida making the NCAA tournament in his freshman season . He's not much of a shooter, but, combined with Caruso, A&M has two of the best passers in the college game. A&M also signed one of its best recruiting classes in recent history with four 4 star players (Admon Gilder, D.J. Hogg, Tyler Davis and Elijah Thomas). All four of those guys will have a chance to play early. With this roster, A&M should be in good shape to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011.
February 13th, 2016 - at Florida - Former Louisiana Tech head coach Mike White takes on the unenviable task of following Billy Donovan in Gainesville. All Donovan did in 19 seasons at Florida was win two national titles, six conference titles, four conference tournament titles and numerous NCAA Tournament appearances. The Gators had occasional success before Donovan, but he made the program nationally relevant. White will be under constant scrutiny until he can prove that he's the right man for the job. How he handles that pressure will go a long way towards determining how long he remains in Gainesville. One thing in his favor is that Donovan left some talent on hand, which will make things easier. The Gators return 4 of their top 8 scorers from last season, including Dorian Finney-Smith (13.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.1 spg), Kasey Hill (7.2 ppg, 4.5 apg, 1.0 spg) and Devin Robinson (6.4 ppg). Robinson, a sophomore, has breakout potential. John Egbunu, a transfer from South Florida, is expected to be an impact transfer in the paint for the Gators. At 6'11, 255 lbs, Egbunu will bring a physical presence that the team lacked last season. He averaged 7.4 ppg and 6.2 rpg as a freshman at USF. Only a sophomore, he has a very high ceiling. White did a good job in keeping the incoming freshman class together. Two four star players (Brandone Francis-Ramirez and KeVaughn Allen) should have an immediate chance for playing time, while two 3 star players (Keith Stone and Kevarrius Hayes) may be more of a long-term option for the program. White has a roster that can win games right away, and it will be important that he does just that to convince the Florida fanbase that there is life after Donovan.
March 2nd, 2016 - Arkansas - After some years in the wilderness, Arkansas basketball finally became a player on the national scene again last season, winning 27 games and advancing to the NCAA second round before bowing out against North Carolina. Two big reasons for the return to prominence was Bobby Portis (SEC Player of the Year) and Michael Qualls (second on the team in scoring and rebounding). Both of those players are now gone, along with two additional players who were among the top 8 in scoring. A third player was released from the team in the offseason for an off-court incident. Those losses would suggest a step back for Arkansas this season. To avoid that, Mike Anderson will need a group of newcomers and returning role players to take a significant step forward. Anthlon Bell (7.9 ppg) is the top returning scorer along with Moses Kingsley (3.6 ppg, 1.1 bpg) and Anton Beard (5.7 ppg, 1.0 spg). Beard has breakout potential, but his status is unclear after a legal matter in the offseason. Kingsley is 6'10, 230 lbs, yet only averaged 2.5 rebounds per game last season. That isn't going to get it done; he must be a presence for this team. Newcomers include transfers Willy Kouassi (Kennesaw State) and Dusty Hannahs (Texas Tech). Both will be expected to contribute. Jimmy Whitt is a 4 star freshman guard that should crack the rotation.
March 5th, 2016 - at Georgia - The regular season ends on the road in Athens. Two seasons ago, Mark Fox was on the hot seat, but has turned things around. In the last two seasons, the Georgia program has won 41 games, and were selected for the NCAA Tournament last season. This season, they return one of the most experienced backcourts in the SEC with Kenny Gaines (11.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.2 spg), Charles Mann (11.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.6 apg) and J.J. Frazier (9.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.2 spg). Those three should help Georgia win their fair share of games, but they will need some production in the post if they want to return to the NCAA Tournament. Marcus Thornton was the heart of this team last season as its leading scorer and rebounder, a guy who brought toughness to the floor despite a career marred by injuries. His college eligibility ended last year so Fox will have to find someone to replace his production. Yante Maten is the early favorite. As a freshman, he averaged 5.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.4 bpg. Georgia will need him to double those numbers this season to remain in the thick of the SEC race.