Basketball practice set to begin amidst heightened expectations

Tony Mitchell may be the most important key to a successful year for a very young Tide team.

The Crimson Tide basketball team will open fall practice this weekend in preparation for the 2011-2012 season. Anthony Grant's squad will do so with virtually no fanfare, preferring to get things started quietly in the relative seclusion of the team's practice facility behind Coleman Coliseum on a day when the football team will be playing an away game.

The coaching staff may prefer to sidestep the hype of a "Midnight Madness" event, but there's no hiding from the early expectations that have been thrown on this team, including consistent top-15 appearances in early preseason rankings from the likes of Rivals' Jason King, ESPN's Andy Katz and even Dick Vitale himself, among many others. Preseason hype, as Bama fans are well aware, can a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can generate tons of energy and excitement around the team--something that can be nothing but positive for a program that only last year emerged from a half-decade in the wilderness as the program decayed and then was rebuilt. But expectations can also breed complacency, and at times even disappointment. Young teams can be especially susceptible to this phenomenon--and this Alabama team is nothing if not young.

The shocking lack of experience on this team is something that has been widely overlooked, not just by the national media types, but also by Bama fans themselves. First-team All-SEC forward JaMychal Green, who just last week was one of 50 players in the nation named to the Wooden Award watch list, is the team's lone senior. Second-team All-SEC wing player Tony Mitchell is the team's lone junior and...that's it--two upperclassmen on the entire eleven-man playing roster. To compound that, five of the nine underclassmen are true freshmen. The Tide will easily be the youngest team in the SEC, and will certainly be one of the youngest teams anywhere in the country.

Now, with all of that said, there are still reasons to be hopeful. Last year's team, which finished second place in the SEC, and just seemed to get stronger and stronger as the year went on, was clearly built on the backs of three players, all of whom are back to form the nucleus of this year's team: Green, Mitchell and freshman-team All-SEC point guard Trevor Releford. While the team lost the remainder of its primary seven-man rotation, it's pretty safe to say that the players Grant brought in with his top-five recruiting class will provide a clear upgrade from a raw talent standpoint.

However, with that hope come many, many questions to be asked about this Alabama team. Can the young but talented recruits learn Grant's defense quickly enough to step in and be as effective on that end of the floor as the outgoing role players like Chris Hines, Senario Hillman and Charvez Davis were? Can the coaching staff and players learn to be effective playing with a very small lineup now that presumptive starting center Moussa Gueye will miss at least most of the season due to injury? Can a team that, aside from the three key returning players, will consist entirely of new players or players who factored in little last season gel in time to avoid the early season let-downs we saw last year? Speaking of those highly touted recruits, just how good are they, really? And finally, how will such a young team respond to all the hefty expectations?

The answers to these questions will start coming on Saturday, when the first official practice will be held a mere four weeks before the season opens on November 11 against North Florida. During those four weeks we'll examine some of those questions in more depth ourselves here at RBR, and we'll also take a closer look at each of the players on the eleven-man playing roster. In the meantime, as is always the case in preseason practice, pray for no more major injuries (especially to post players), and more generally, to steal the line from OTS, hope for the best.

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