After a challenging slate of games in November, the December schedule, at least on paper, appears to ease up a little. The team will only play one game outside the state of Alabama in December.
Friday, December 6 - Stephen F. Austin - 7:00 P.M. CT - TV: SECN+: This is the return game in a home-and-home series. The Lumberjacks will be trying to bounce back from an uncharacteristically poor season in 18-19 when they finished 14-16 overall and 7-11 in conference play. That might be easier said than done after losing three of their top five scorers last season and welcoming in nine newcomers. One thing in their favor is the return of Kevon Harris (17.8 pts, 6.5 rebs, 2 asts, 1 stl, 52.1 FG%, 37.9% from 3), expected to be one of the top players in the Southland Conference.
Saturday, December 14 - at Penn State - 1:00 P.M. CT - TV: Big Ten Network: Yet another return game in a home-and-home series. Penn State is one of the toughest jobs in the country, which may explain why head coach Pat Chambers is entering year nine at the school despite no NCAA Tournament appearances. If Chambers and his team are going to get over the hump, this year might be their best chance. The biggest reason for optimism is that Lamar Stevens (19.9 pts, 7.7 rebs, 2.1 asts), a first-team All-Big Ten selection, returned for his senior season. Stevens will need some help; returning players such as Myles Dread (8.3 pts, 2.8 rebs, 1.3 asts, 35.6% from 3) and Mike Watkins (7.8 pts, 7.4 rebs, 1.5 blks) will need to step up their production as well. While the Lions finished the 18-19 season with a 14-18 record, they did win seven of their final ten games and finished top 50 at KenPom. Will that momentum carry over into this season?
Wednesday, December 18 - at Samford - Time: TBD - TV: SECN+: Despite this game being listed as a road game at Samford, it will be played at Legacy Arena. In five seasons, head coach Scott Padgett has struggled to get the Samford program off the ground. His record so far is 74-92, and none of his teams have finished .500 or better in the Southern Conference so far despite having some talent on his rosters. With four starters returning, it may be now or never for this program under Padgett's direction. Those four starters are Josh Sharkey (16.3 pts, 3.8 rebs, 7.2 asts, 2.6 stls), former Alabama player Brandon Austin (12.8 pts, 4.5 rebs, 1.1 stl, 41.4% from 3), Myron Gordon (12.2 pts, 2.4 rebs, 1.8 ast) and Robert Allen (9.9 pts, 8.3 rebs, 1.5 ast).
Saturday, December 21 - Belmont - Time: 2:30 P.M. CT - TV: SEC Network: Belmont has been one of the most consistent programs in the country. In the last ten years, Belmont has averaged 24 wins per season. After thirty-three years as the head coach at Belmont, where he led the program from the NAIA ranks to Division I, Rick Byrd retired. He finished his coaching career with 805 wins (658 of those at Belmont). Typically, a program loses a coach like that and you wonder if it'll stay afloat. I don't think it'll be a problem for Belmont because they made the smart decision to hire alum and former Lipscomb coach, Casey Alexander. Not only did Alexander play for Byrd at Belmont, he was also an assistant for sixteen seasons at the school before becoming a head coach. He understands the culture and, in my opinion, he'll keep things rolling there. He built Lipscomb into a formidable program of its own, which resulted in the first NCAA Tournament bid for the school. Despite the coaching change and the fact that Belmont lost their top two scorers, the Bruins are expected to once again be a favorite for the OVC title. A big (literally) reason why is 6'11, 235 lb sophomore Nick Muszynski. The likely preseason player of the year, Muszynski averaged 14.7 pts, 5.8 rebs, 2.7 asts, 2.2 blks, 60.4% FG, and 36.6% from 3 last season. It's very possible that the program could produce first round draft picks in back-to-back seasons (Dylan Windler was selected 26th this past June).
Sunday, December 29 - Richmond - Time: 5:30 P.M. CT - TV: SEC Network: The Spiders are hoping for a change of fortune after the last two seasons only produced a total of twenty-five wins. With their top six scorers returning, including four double-figure scorers (Grant Golden - 17.2 pts, 7.1 rebs, 3.5 asts, 1.1 blk; Jacob Gilyard - 16.2 pts, 2.9 rebs, 5.2 asts, 2.8 stls; Nathan Cayo - 12.9 pts, 4.2 rebs, 1.8 ast; Nick Sherod - 12.7 pts, 5.2 rebs, 2.8 asts, 1.3 stl, only played in six games due to injury), anything less than a winning season would have to be considered a disappointment. In addition, the team also adds Blake Francis, a transfer from Wagner that led that program in scoring (17.3) two seasons ago.