The stretch run. Every month of the college basketball season is important of course, but the games in February and early March allow a team to solidify its postseason resume, assuming they have one. The expectation is that this Alabama team will have a resume to polish. This stretch will give them great opportunities twice against the Gators and once against Kentucky for starters. The goal is to be in great shape from a resume standpoint when the teams travel to St. Louis (ugh) for the conference tournament.
Saturday, February 3 - at Florida - The last time Alabama traveled to Gainesville in the 15-16 season, it was one of the highlights of the Avery Johnson tenure so far. Alabama won in Gainesville for the first time since 1995. I believe the Gators are the true favorites in the league this season so this will be yet another challenge for our guys. Florida is coming off an Elite Eight run last season, and they return key players in KeVaughn Allen (14.0 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 1.5 apg, 1.3 spg) and Chris Chiozza (7.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.3 spg). John Egbunu (7.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.5 bpg) also returns, but he's out until January as he recovers from a knee injury. In his place, expect Kevarrius Hayes (6.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.7 bpg) to shine, as he did last season when Egbunu was lost. The team also adds two potential impact transfers - Jalen Hudson (Virginia Tech; 8.4 ppg, 2.3 rpg in 15-16), and Egor Koulechov (Rice; 18.2 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 2.1 apg, 47.4% from 3).
Tuesday, February 6 - at Mississippi State - The second meeting with the Bulldogs, this time in DJC's favorite watering hole. This could be a huge game for State, depending on how Alabama's season is progressing. I feel it should be mentioned over and over how terrible the Bulldogs non-conference schedule is. Mississippi State will need to stockpile all the quality conference wins they can in order to build a postseason resume.
Saturday, February 10 - Tennessee - Rick Barnes enters his third season in Knoxville. The Vols appeared to be in solid shape for an NCAA bid last season as they entered February, but things fell apart down the stretch and Tennessee missed the postseason altogether. The top returning player is Grant Williams (12.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.1 apg, 1.9), an All-Freshman selection last season. After Williams, it's a jumble of players, both returning (Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bone, Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, among others) and new (Yves Pons, a 4-star recruit from Paris, France; James Daniel III, a grad transfer from Howard who led the country in scoring (27.1 ppg) in 2015-16 before missing the 16-17 season with an severe ankle injury) that must take on new roles if this team hopes to reach its goals.
Tuesday, February 13 - LSU - Second meeting with the Tigers, this time in Tuscaloosa.
Saturday, February 17 - at Kentucky - An opportunity on a national stage as this game will be televised on CBS. After losing three games to Kentucky by an average of 22.3 points in Avery's first season, Alabama competed with Big Blue last season, only losing both games played by an average of 7 points (hey, it's something!). Is this the year Avery can get over the hump vs Calipari? It's a long shot winning in Rupp, but I've seen stranger things. Kentucky is once again the media's favorite to win the league, but this is the most inexperienced team Cal has had during his time in Lexington. As long as they stay healthy, I expect Cal and his staff to figure things out, but this team could take some lumps along the way as they gel together. Raw talent obviously won't be an issue. Calipari signed the 2nd-ranked recruiting class for 2017. Tops in that class are Hamidou Diallo (who enrolled in January of last season, but only practiced with the team), Kevin Knox and Jarred Vanderbilt (currently out with a foot injury). They're three of six five-star recruits in this class, and two four-star recruits round it out. Returning players to watch are Wenyen Gabriel (the top returning scorer at 4.6 ppg last season) and Sacha Killeya-Jones (only played in 15 games last season, averaging 6.4 minutes per game). Yep, they were 5-stars out of college as well.
Wednesday, February 21 - at Auburn - The second meeting with Auburn, this time in their joint. Never easy to go down there and play. Say what you want to about Pearl, but he understands the importance of winning this game. Case in point: Auburn missed the postseason for the eighth straight season, but sweeping Alabama was everything for their fans. Will that be enough for the fans in Bruce's fourth season? Another season without a postseason, in addition to the burden of the FBI investigation, wouldn't give Bruce much leverage.
Saturday, February 24 - Arkansas - Only one meeting with Mike Anderson and the Hogs in the regular season. I thought last season was Mike's best coaching job in his six seasons at Arkansas. The Razorbacks won 26 games, and should have beaten eventual national champion North Carolina in the second round of the tournament. Moses Kingsley and Dusty Hannahs (a combined 26.4 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 2.6 apg and 2.7 bpg) have moved on, but the dynamic duo of Daryl Macon (13.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.1 spg) and Jaylen Barford (12.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.2 spg) returns. These two guys will have the greenest of green lights. Expect both to average north of 15 points per game. The question is who emerges as a third option for this team. My early guess is seniors Anton Beard (7.2 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.1 spg) and Dustin Thomas (5.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.1 apg) will get first crack. In all, Arkansas will have six seniors on this team so there is experience a-plenty. Keep an eye out for 4-star freshman big man (6'11, 234 lbs) Daniel Gafford, a top 50 recruit who should play major minutes out of the gate.
Tuesday, February 27 - Florida - The second meeting with the Gators. If both teams have the types of seasons I believe they will, this game could have conference title implications.
Saturday, March 3 - at Texas A&M - The regular season ends in College Station with the second meeting with the Aggies. If both teams meet their potential, it could be back-to-back games for Bama with conference title implications.