We are now four weeks from the start of the college basketball season and the first season of the Nate Oats era. Alabama returns an intriguing mix of experience and talent, but it's also a program that has failed to live up to the talent on its rosters in recent seasons. As a result, preseason predictions for this team have been all over the place. I've seen some pick Alabama to finish top four in the league, while others pick them closer to the bottom. If the truth is usually found in the middle, the most realistic expectation for year one of the Oats era is that this is a middle-of-the-pack team.
Once again, the SEC will be a challenge to navigate. You really have to hand it to the league and the schools for the work they've put forth to improve basketball in the conference. In addition, the Bama non-conference schedule is once again expected to be one of the tougher schedules among SEC teams. With this Alabama team breaking in a new style of play under a new coaching staff against a tough schedule, it won't be a shock to see this team go through some growing pains. However, if Oats and his staff are the right guys for the job, and the players can adapt to his style of play and avoid further injuries, the team is talented enough to maybe - just maybe - return to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons.
Sunday, October 27 - Georgia Tech (Exhibition) - 12:00 P.M. CT - TV: None: Alabama will also have a closed scrimmage against Jacksonville State for the second straight season, but I'm just going to preview what's listed on the schedule. I'm happy that this is the exhibition game for Alabama this season. First and foremost, the proceeds go to charity so that's obviously a good thing. Secondly, Nate Oats is going to learn far more about his team facing an ACC team than he could if the opponent was a D2, 3, or an NAIA team. If Georgia Tech wasn't in the ACC, their preseason expectations would likely be higher. Their top three scorers (Jose Alvarado, James Banks III and Michael Devoe) return, and they added transfers in Jordan Usher (USC) and Bubba Parham (VMI). Parham could be an impact newcomer; in his final season at VMI, he led the Southern Conference in scoring at 21.4 per game (39.7% from 3). The Jackets will also be one of the oldest teams in the ACC with nine juniors and seniors on the roster. What's difficult to predict is how motivated will this team be now that the NCAA has banned them from the NCAA Tournament due to rules violations.
Tuesday, November 5 - Penn - 7:00 P.M. CT - TV: SEC Network +: This could be a tough opener for our guys. Harvard is considered by most college basketball pundits to be the overwhelming favorite in the Ivy League, but Penn is not far behind. The Quakers return four of their top five scorers from last season, including All-Ivy selection AJ Brodeur (17.6 pts, 8.3 rebs, 3.6 asts, 1.3 blks, 1stl). They will also get back guard Ryan Betley who suffered a knee injury in the first game last season. In the 17-18 season, Betley led the team in scoring (14.3 pts) and made 39.1% of his 3-point attempts. The team is also well-coached with Steve Donahue at the helm. If you remember, he built Cornell into a mid-major power and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. That team also came into Coleman Coliseum and defeated Alabama in the season opener. Don't chalk this one up as a victory just yet.
Monday, November 11 - Florida Atlantic - 7:00 P.M. CT - TV: SECN +: Another game that might be tougher than you think at first glance. The Owls program had its first winning season (17-16) in eight years in 18-19 despite losing two of their best players (Jailyn Ingram and Jaylen Sebree) to season-ending injuries. Ingram (18.9 pts, 8.2 rebs, 42.5% from 3) and Sebree (9.4 pts, 4.2 rebs, 35.7% from 3) both return. If they remain healthy, chances are good that FAU finishes with a second straight winning season.
Friday, November 15 - at Rhode Island - 6:30 P.M. CT - TV: NBC Sports Network: This is the back end of a home-and-home series between the two schools; the first game was played two years ago at Coleman. After losing head coach Dan Hurley to Uconn, a season of transition (18-15, no postseason) under new head coach David Cox was to be expected. With their top three scorers returning (Jeff Dowtin, Cyril Langevine, and Fatts Russell), the expectation this season is that Rhode Island will once again be among the teams challenging for the A-10 title.
Tuesday, November 19 - Furman - 7:00 P.M. CT - TV: SECN +: In my opinion, one of the under-the-radar stories in college basketball last season was how good the Southern Conference was. East Tennessee State won 24 games; UNC-Greensboro won 29 games; Wofford won 30 games; and the Furman Paladins won 25 games. The conference should have had multiple teams in the tournament, but we know how that typically goes for mid-majors. Greensboro and Furman settled for NIT bids, while ETSU played in the CIT tournament. Those four teams appear to be in the mix again, and two more teams in the league (Samford and Western Carolina) could be improved as well. Furman lost their leading scorer from a season ago, but return the other four leading scorers, including guard Jordan Lyons (16.2 pts, 2.3 asts, 1.2 stls) who should be one of the top players in the conference. With these first four games, Alabama will be significantly tested before they head to The Bahamas.
Wednesday, November 27 - vs North Carolina - 1:30 P.M. CT - TV: TBD: I'm guessing I don't have to write too much about this one, right? Alabama will tip off the Battle 4 Atlantis in The Bahamas with a monster opportunity to make a statement. North Carolina is a giant in college basketball, one of the top three programs all-time in the sport. The Tarheels could be vulnerable early in the season after losing their top five scorers last season to graduation and the NBA draft. However, programs like UNC have the luxury of signing elite talent. Two 5-star recruits - Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot - should be impact players from day one. Anthony is a top five prospect in the country and was the MVP of the McDonald's All-American game. In a sign of the times, Roy Williams also welcomes two grad transfers (Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce) that should fill roles. In addition, the team returns role players from a season ago such as Garrison Brooks (from Lafayette, Alabama), Leaky Black (41.7% from 3), and Brandon Robinson (46% from 3) that should see their roles expanded. It may take Williams and his staff some time to mold it all together, but when the dust settles UNC will likely be one of the top teams in the country....again.
Thursday, November 28 - vs Michigan/Iowa State - TV: TBA: Win or lose vs the Tarheels, day two in The Bahamas will be another challenge for our guys. The Michigan program is facing some uncertainty moving forward after John Beilein chose to take the Cleveland Cavaliers job. Beilein is the winningest coach in the program's history so replacing him will be difficult to say the least. Former Michigan player Juwan Howard was hired as the new coach. Frankly, it's a surprising hire. Howard is a first-time head coach, and the last time he was around a college program was during his playing days. Fortunately for Howard, there is talent remaining on the roster, and the culture that Beilein built won't disappear overnight. Unfortunately for Howard, the top three scorers from last season departed, which means he's going to have to hope role players from last season and newcomers can develop quickly.
I'm sure ESPN is hoping Alabama meets the Iowa State Cyclones on day two. After all, there's a built-in story line: Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm is an Alabama alum. Prohm is entering his fifth season in Ames. In four seasons, he has guided the program to three NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet 16 appearance in his first season, and two Big 12 Tournament titles. The Cyclones could be rebuilding after losing four of their top five scorers from last season, but have enough returning (Michael Jacobson, Tyrese Haliburton and Solomon Young) and incoming (Prentiss Nixon and Rasir Bolton, both transfers) talent to keep hope alive.
Friday, November 29 - vs TBD - TV: TBA: Alabama will wrap up day three in The Bahamas vs one of these four teams: Gonzaga, Southern Miss, Oregon or Seton Hall. In the interest of time, I won't go into too much detail about these four teams. Gonzaga of course is one of the best programs in the sport, and has been for a long time. However, they could be shaky early in the season as the program must replace three guys that entered the draft and three seniors. But Gonzaga has reached a point where you just expect them to be good regardless of roster attrition.
Southern Miss won twenty games last season and were one of four teams that finished tied for second place in Conference USA. Unfortunately, in the wake of losing five of his top seven scorers, head coach Doc Sadler decided to call it a day and stepped down. With a new coach and so much player turnover, expectations for Southern Miss are reduced this season.
Oregon, like much of the Pac 12 last season, was mediocre. Heading into the conference tournament, they were not considered an at-large team so they proceeded to win the Pac 12 tournament, and used that momentum to play their way into the Sweet 16 where they lost a close game to eventual champion Virginia. Head Coach Dana Altman has done a great job keeping Oregon basketball relevant, despite his program being hit by the NBA Draft every year it seems. Just this past June, the program lost another three players to the draft. But if history is any indication, Altman will figure things out and Oregon will be a player in the Pac 12 race once again.
Seton Hall has been to four straight NCAA Tournaments. The chances of making five straight this season looks good. The Pirates have a potential All-American in guard Myles Powell, and return eight of the top nine scorers from last season. To say that fan expectations are high for Seton Hall in the Big East (and perhaps beyond) would be an understatement.