UPDATE: Some folks online are saying that WVUA will be televising the game tonight. The channel is available in Tuscaloosa and on many cable providers in the Birmingham area. It is unclear if it is available in other parts of the state, but if anyone has more information please let us know in the comments.
Anthony Grant and the Crimson Tide will officially open the 2011-2012 season tonight when they host the North Florida Ospreys of the Atlantic Sun Conference. The game, scheduled to tip off at 7:00pm CST in Coleman Coliseum, will not be televised (one of only four this year where that will be the case). However, the game will be streamed online at TideTV for subscribers, and game audio will be broadcast in Alabama and surrounding areas on the Crimson Tide Sports Network (listings). We will also have live commentary in our game thread here at RBR for those unable to watch.
We previewed the Ospreys in a separate piece yesterday, and below we'll preview the game itself.
What's at stake
As the season opener, the Tide is starting with a blank slate. At the risk of further stating the obvious, this will be the last game this season where that's the case. That's because each and every result from here until early March will show up on Bama's tournament resume. The Alabama team that steps on the court tonight, whose playing rotation will literally consist of 50% true freshmen, won't at all resemble the team we'll see four months from now when March rolls around, but their results in the season's infancy will matter--big time. We saw last year just how much damage "bad losses", even in the first couple weeks of the season, can do to a team's hopes come tournament time. A win against North Florida will likely do little for the Tide, but a loss would stain the Tide's resume for the rest of the year.
What to expect
Anthony Grant stated in his press conference yesterday that he would likely go with a starting lineup of Trevor Releford, Levi Randolph, Rodney Cooper, Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green. Look for Trevor Lacey to play the sixth man role and also to take over point guard duties when Releford is out of the game. Charles Hankerson will likewise probably see a lot of minutes off the bench out on the perimeter. Carl Engstrom and Nick Jacobs will split time in the post.
Don't be surprised to see Grant deploy a lot of full-court pressure. The team has reportedly been focusing on full-court pressing defense in practice, something they didn't show much in the scrimmage on Monday. Forced to play a smaller lineup anyway, and with UNF having lost their primary point guard from last season, picking up the tempo and bringing the heat in the backcourt may serve Grant's interests. Furthermore, Grant has always preferred to press, but due to a lack of guard depth in his first two seasons was forced to largely focus on half-court defense. With a deep array of athletic guards this season, it's a good bet we'll see a lot of full-court pressure from the Tide.
What Bama needs to do to win
To avoid a bad loss to start the season, the Tide's primary focus is simply to avoid sloppy play on both ends. North Florida has the ability to hurt Bama in two key ways: turnovers and outside shooting. On the defensive end, the Tide and its young guards need to avoid some of the perimeter defense breakdowns we saw in the scrimmage game. If they can't, the Ospreys' two top shooters, Parker Smith and Jerron Granberry, have the ability to make them pay from outside. North Florida also does a very good job creating turnovers on the perimeter with pesky man defense. Due to their lack of size, they will hope for some key turnovers to lead to some easy transition baskets.
If Bama can avoid giving the Ospreys easy opportunities with defensive breakdowns and turnovers, the Tide should be able to exploit their physical advantage in the other areas of the game. Alabama will be at a size disadvantage against most opponents this season, but that won't be the case against North Florida, who doesn't have a single player in the rotation taller than 6'7". In order to ensure that the game doesn't come down to shooting and turnovers--North Florida's hopes for winning--Bama needs to feed Green early and often and look to crash the offensive boards. If the Tide can do these things, its physical advantages should lead to lots of high-percentage shots.
Alabama's biggest goal for the first month or two of the season is to find an identity and to gel as a team with a mostly new lineup and a young roster. In the meantime, though, the team must get at least some decent results and at all costs avoid losses to teams such as North Florida. The coaches and fans will be looking to see how the team plays, what defense is employed and which is most effective, and which players step up to fill key roles on offense and defense. Those things are all important, but the most important thing is to get to 1-0. Hope for the best.