As is the case each and every year, the start of college basketball season gets lost amid the emotion and passion of the huge football clashes in which the Tide engages every November. This year is no different, and crazy as it seems, the college basketball season officially begins tonight--that's right, tonight--when Rhode Island takes on #4 Pittsburgh at 6:00 pm on ESPNU. The Tide's season opener comes later this week, on Friday night, the eve of the Mississippi State football game, when Florida A&M comes calling to officially tip off Anthony Grant's second season at the helm.
First, however, the Crimson Tide basketball team will host its second and final preseason exhibition scrimmage tonight at 7:00 pm. The scrimmage will be open to the public and streamed live on rolltide.com.
The level of competition will take a step up from the first scrimmage we saw last week, when the opponent came from the NAIA ranks. This time, the opponent will be UAH, one of the top teams in the NCAA's Division II. They scrimmaged one of the SEC's top teams from a year ago, Vanderbilt, last week and gave them a very competitive contest, as the Commodores only managed to outscore them by 16 points. Don't be surprised (or overly concerned) if the final score ends up being less than impressive from the Tide's perspective.
While the final score doesn't matter, the team's performance at this point does. We're now only four days away from the official season opener, and while Florida A&M might not seem like a daunting challenge, it's nevertheless a game we can't afford to lose, and at any rate, the team is just over a week away from embarking on a trip to the Virgin Islands that will see Bama take on at least two, if not three, major conference opponents in the Paradise Jam tournament. Needless to say, we don't have a lot of time left to break in our true freshman point guard and gel as a team, so tonight is a very important step in doing just that.
The first scrimmage answered a lot of questions about what this team will look like from a personnel standpoint. We can pretty much bank on the starting lineup being true freshman Trevor Releford at point guard, senior Senario Hillman at shooting guard, sophomore Tony Mitchell at small forward, senior Chris Hines at power forward, and junior JaMychal Green in the post. We also know that 7'1" true freshman Carl Engstrom will see time in the post off the bench, and that sophomore Ben Eblen will get the first chance to handle point guard duties in relief of Releford, although he still may have some work to do to prove he can be trusted with more than just spot duty. Senior shooting guard Charvez Davis will ultimately play a significant role off the bench once he returns, but for now he will not be dressing as he recovers from hernia surgery. Ditto for Andrew Steele, although the fact that he will now be missing both preseason tuneups begins to call into question his ability to contribute early on in the season. Versatile true freshman Charles Hankerson will also be a factor off the bench, and can play multiple positions. It's still not clear what role junior college transfer guard Kendall Durant or true freshman forward Jason Carter will play, but both will have opportunities to earn minutes going forward.
With the personnel situation at least a little more clear, and with the level of competition stepping up in this scrimmage, the important thing to look for tonight will be how the team is coming together as a unit. UAH may actually have a stronger squad than a few of the Division I teams we play early on in the season, so tonight will provide a good test in terms how well we can execute on both ends of the floor. Offensively, look to see how effective we are in transition and whether or not we can limit the number of turnovers. Last year, we struggled early in the season with turnovers, and that cost us a few games we should have won. Also look to see who can step up and knock down the 3's. With our best shooter, Davis, out for the scrimmage, we need to find out who else can step up and knock down shots in a game situation, particularly among the starters.
On defense, look to see how well we can execute the full court press and transition from there into our half-court look--something Grant has stressed in his comments this week. Grant, known for his defensive schemes, loves to employ the full court press, but we had to largely abandon that last year due to simply not having the depth to keep it up as the season wore on. We saw plenty of full court press in the first scrimmage, and it's probably something we'll see for large portions of games this season now that our depth is greatly improved. A key thing to look for tonight is how well we avoid defensive breakdowns when the press is beaten and we have to find the shooters out on the perimeter. If our press works well and forces a lot of turnovers against UAH, it's a pretty good sign that it will be pretty effective against many of our opponents in the season, too.