The Crimson Tide basketball team will take on its first major opponent of the 2010-2011 season this evening in the opening round of the Paradise Jam tournament in the Virgin Islands. Bama will face the Seton Hall Pirates of the Big East conference, with the game scheduled to tip off at 5:00 pm C.T.
The game will not be televised, but it will be streamed online by Fox Sports. To watch online, you'll need to purchase a $3.99 pass, which will allow you to watch all opening round games of the tournament as well as all consolation games. The semifinals and finals will be televised on FSN.
This is an extremely important game for several reasons. College basketball doesn't get a lot of hype--especially in SEC country--until after football season, but make no mistake, these early season November and December non-conference matchups are vitally important when it comes to building a tournament resume. A win over a Big East team that is widely considered to be a contender for a tournament berth would be a huge resume win in and of itself. Furthermore, winning the opening game of the Paradise Jam would ensure matchups with the other first-round winners in our other two games in the Virgin Islands, giving us further opportunities to boost our resume. A loss on the other hand, would mean our other two opponents would come from the pool of first-round losers. Considering Xavier, Clemson, and Old Dominion--three NCAA tournament teams a year ago--are the heavy first-round favorites, a win tonight would mean two more opportunities to pick up quality non-conference wins, while a loss would likely mean we won't even get a chance to face those teams.
A win tonight will be far from easy, though. Seton Hall returns four starters--including their top three scorers--from a team that barely missed the NCAA tournament last year and finished with a solid 9-9 record in what was arguably college basketball's toughest conference. The Pirates did make a coaching change in the offseason after former coach Bobby Gonzalez was relieved of his duty due to off-court issues. Kevin Willard, who did a nice job at Iona, was brought in and hopes to quickly put the program back into the NCAA tournament and the top half of the Big East.
There is more than enough talent on this Seton Hall roster for Willard to achieve those goals this year. The biggest star by far is senior guard Jeremy Hazell, who averaged 20.4 points per game last season and has picked up right where he left off by averaging 22.5 points through the first two games this year. Anyone who averages over 20 in the Big East is clearly a legit scorer, and Hazell is certainly no exception. We won't face many guards all year who are that prolific in their scoring ability, so it will be a major challenge to slow him down. Hazell will get his points--after all, the only way you average 20+ over a season is if a 15-point outing is your off night. A big key for the Tide defense then will not be trying to prevent Hazell from scoring, but rather to force Hazell to take bad shots--something he is prone to do at times and something that can cost the Pirates valuable possessions.
The Pirates also return junior power forward Herb Pope, who had a rare double-double season average last year with 12.2 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. Pope led the entire Big East conference in rebounding last season. Needless to say, he's a beast on the glass, and will be a huge challenge for our post players. A big key for the Tide will be keeping him off the offensive glass as much as possible. Senior small forward Jeff Robinson also returns after averaging double-figures in scoring last year at 12.2. points per game. The experienced and talented combination of Hazell, Robinson, and Pope all returning from last year's squad gives the Pirates a great base upon which to build, yet they still have an array of other experienced weapons that give them even more firepower.
Two experienced point guards return to complement Hazell in the backcourt in junior Jordan Theodore and senior Keon Lawrence, who started last year. Theodore is the better scorer and has seen more minutes this year under Willard. He'll likely be the starter at point guard, but Lawrence will play plenty. Yet another experienced senior guard, Jamel Jackson, will also see minutes off the bench behind Hazell after averaging 4.8 points per game last season. Finally, the Pirates added still another senior to their roster in the form of wing player Eniel Polynice, who pulled a on Ole Miss and took advantage of the NCAA's free one-year transfer rule. The fact that Polynice was consistently one of the three best players on Ole Miss's team during his three years there, yet isn't even a starter for Seton Hall, should tell you just how much talent the Pirates have on hand.
The Seton Hall playing rotation is rounded out by three younger players who fill out the frontcourt for the Pirates. Freshman forward Fuquan Edwin has gotten starts so far this year, but he splits time with fellow freshman forward Patrik Auda and sophomore forward Ferrakohn Hall. None have stood out statistically through the first two games.
Despite a pretty deep field including three teams who went Dancing last year, many consider Seton Hall to be the best team in the tournament. They lost their season opener, but it was on the road against a top-25 Temple team, and they took the Owls right down to the wire--certainly no shame in that. They followed that up with a shellacking of Cornell, who you may remember was a Sweet 16 team last year. Not only does Seton Hall have one of the best scorers we'll see all year in Hazell, and one of the best rebounders we'll see all year in Pope, but they are loaded with the kind of experience that would make any coach envious, including 5 seniors and 6 players with prior starting experience in major conference basketball.
A win tonight will be tough, but it would be massive for all the reasons I mentioned above. A loss to a quality team won't necessarily hurt, but it would be a huge opportunity lost, as it would likely ruin any chance we'd get to beat a tournament-quality non-conference team in this tournament. Don't forget, we won't face any high-quality non-conference teams at home, so if we don't pick up any big wins this week on the neutral court down in the Virgin Islands, our only other chances will come on the road in West Lafayette, Providence, and Oklahoma City in front of hostile crowds.
Hope for the best.