It's October. Practice for the basketball team is underway. We are 33 days away from the first game of the Avery Johnson era, an exhibition game against Trevecca Nazarene. We are 40 days away from the first official game of the season with Kennesaw State. Even though expectations are tempered for this first season under Avery Johnson, there is an excitement for the start of this basketball season that we have not seen in some time.
Being his first season as a college coach, it would have been understandable if Avery Johnson and his staff had scheduled light. Instead, they put together a challenging non-conference schedule that will test this team early and often. In addition, the SEC conference is slowly making improvements across the league that will make rebuilding in this conference a much tougher assignment. Depending on what preseason magazine you prefer, Alabama could play as many as 12 teams projected to make the NCAA tournament. This preview will focus on the games in November played before Orlando (the AdvoCare Invitational will get its own post).
November 06, 2015 - Trevecca Nazarene - Alabama will open the 2015-16 season with an exhibition game against the Trojans of Trevecca Nazarene from Nashville. The Trojans finished 13-15 last season, but are expecting improvement as they return their top 10 returning scorers from last season. The Trojans were successful in scoring last season (77.5), but struggled to defend (opponents averaged 79.1). The scoring load was passed around as four different players averaged double figures for this team last season, but the leader appears to be Byron Sanford, a senior guard from Louisville, KY. Sanford averaged 18.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg (despite being listed as 6'0) 4.4 apg and 2.7 spg. This will be an interesting test for an exhibition game as Trevecca returns a lot of experience, a head coach with 23 years at the helm, and appear to play at a quick tempo.
November 13, 2015 - Kennesaw State - The Owls from Kennesaw, Georgia will be the first official game on the schedule. Kennesaw State is a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference. Last season was not a memorable one as the program only won 10 games, prompting a coaching change. To their credit, Kennesaw made a great hire in Al Skinner, a former national coach of the year and a two-time Big East Coach of the Year at Boston College. He was also voted the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year in 1992 when he was at Rhode Island. He took Rhode Island to two NCAA tournaments during his tenure there, and took Boston College to seven NCAA Tournaments in a 13 year span. The guy can coach. Kennesaw will return 4 of their top 8 scorers from last season, including their top two scorers, Yonel Brown (15.2 ppg, 38% 3-pt, 90% FT) and Nigel Pruitt (12.2 ppg, 37% 3-pt).
November 17, 2015 - at Dayton - The schedule picks up considerably with a trip to Dayton, the favorite for some in the A-10 this season. The game will tip off at 12 PM as part of the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon, a scheduling win for Avery Johnson as he seeks to raise the profile of this Bama program. Archie Miller (whose name was mentioned when the Bama coaching search began) has done a great job at Dayton, taking the Flyers to back-to-back NCAA tournaments, including the Elite Eight two seasons ago. As I mentioned, the Flyers are A-10 favorites in some circles, but they will have to replace their leading scorer from a season ago (Jordan Sibert) and play some games without Dyshawn Pierre, their 2nd leading scorer and leading rebounder, who is currently serving a suspension for the fall semester due to a sexual assault allegation (despite the charges having been dropped due to insufficient evidence). Pierre is challenging the suspension so there is a chance he could be reinstated by the time this game takes place. Despite those losses, Dayton still returns 5 of their top 8 scorers from last season, including Kendall Pollard and Scoochie Smith. Another guy to watch is Charles Cooke, a transfer from James Madison who averaged 14.3 ppg in his lone season at JMU. Dayton has the players in place to challenge for the A-10 title and return to the NCAA tournament, but they will need Dyshawn Pierre back in the fold to reach their full potential. With Pierre or without him, this will be a great opportunity for Alabama to make a statement early in Avery's tenure against a nationally respected program.
November 20, 2015 - Louisiana Lafayette - Being that this game falls between the trip to Dayton and the trip to Orlando for the Advocare Invitational, it would be tempting to overlook this game. It would also be a mistake. Lafayette is a solid basketball program (last NCAA appearance was in 2014) that recruits good athletes. They had a first round draft pick with Elfrid Payton two years ago, and could have another draft pick this season with Shawn Long. In his fifth season, Bob Marlin has led Lafayette to back-to-back 20-win seasons, and his team is expected to contend for the Sun Belt title this season. Alabama has struggled in recent years rebounding the basketball, and Lafayette was among the top 10 in the nation last season in rebounding. It starts with Long, a Mississippi State transfer, who leads all active players nationally in double-doubles entering the season. He had a great junior season, averaging 16.4 ppg and 10.2 rpg. At 6-11, 246 lbs, he's going to be a tough match-up for Bama's interior players. Long won't have to do it alone. Counting him, Lafayette will return 7 of their top 8 scorers from last season, all of whom averaged at least 5 points per game. Bama needs to be on upset alert in this one.