Well, it's certainly been an eventful opening week for the Alabama Crimson Tide basketball program, and the team hasn't even hit the floor for a regular season game yet. After one of the most hyped-up off-seasons Alabama basketball has ever experienced, the sobering news of Braxton Key's knee injury and Collin Sexton's eligibility issues, paired with a less-than-stellar win over UAH in their exhibition game on Monday, had Tide fans pumping the breaks quite a bit ahead of Alabama's opener Friday night against the Memphis Tigers. However, it was then revealed last night that Sexton has been reinstated, and that he will only serve a one-game suspension. That suspension will be served against Memphis tonight.
The Tigers are in their second year under Tubby Smith, and are looking to build off of a 19-13 campaign where they missed out on post-season play, a rarity for this proud program. As much roster turmoil as Alabama is currently going through, with Riley Norris and Ar'Mond Davis also unlikely to play due to injuries, Memphis still one-ups the Tide in roster uncertainty. The Tigers top three scorers from last season all transferred away over the summer, and Tubby went to the JUCO well to try to compensate for it.
Clearly, there are a lot of unknowns going into the opener in Annapolis, Maryland, where the game is being played as part of the Veteran's Classic. Which team can find enough answers to come away with a "W"?
- POINT 6'3 Jeremiah Martin (10.3 PPG, 4.4 APG, 3.1 RPG last season)
- GUARD 6'3 Kareem Brewton (19.9 PPG, 4.4 APG, 5.1 RPG)*
- WING 6'7 Raynere Thornton (10.9 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 5.9 APG)*
- POST 6'8 Jimario Rivers (6.4 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 0.9 APG)
- POST 6'9 Mike Parks Jr. (8.9 PPG, 4.0 RPG)*
Memphis returns two starters from last season: Martin at the point and lone senior Rivers. Martin will be the most important player on the team this season, as his overall game (45.1% FG%, 1.8 SPG, 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio) will be vital to keeping this raw, brand-new group together. He wasn't much of a shooter last season (28.2% 3P%, 67.3% FT%), but if he's improved that area of his game he could be an all-conference selection. Rivers is a solid post player who had to play more minutes than he probably would've liked at the five-spot; it should benefit him to be able to slide over and not have to defend big, physical centers, as he's only listed at 6'8 and 195 pounds.
As important as those two returners will be, Memphis isn't going anywhere without some of their JUCO transfers working out for them. Brewton could be the most ready to make an impact. The JUCO All-American is a pure scorer with great speed, and will be counted on for big minutes in what is a pretty thin back-court. Thornton is a long, athletic wing that can play inside and out, which could give 'Bama some issues with Key and Norris out. Big-man Parks Jr. didn't have amazing stats at Southwest Mississippi CC, but his size and build will be both literally and figuratively huge for a Memphis team that often got bullied in the post last season.
- G 6'2 Malik Rhodes (13.7 PPG, 2.8 APG, 2.2 RPG)*
- G 6'4 Jamal Johnson (159th-ranked player according to 247 Composite)
- W 6'7 David Nickelberry (214th-ranked player according to 247 Composite)
- P 6'8 Kyvon Davenport (16.5 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 1.6 APG)*
- P 6'8 Victor Enoh (293rd-ranked player according to 247 Composite)
- P 6'11 Karim Sameh Azab (Did not play last season)
This is a really inexperienced team with a lot of unknowns. Not a single player off of the bench played Division I basketball last season, let alone at Memphis. Rhodes and Davenport were both very good players at the JUCO level, but neither is expected to translate as well as Brewton or Thornton are. Sameh Azab sat out last season as the NCAA dragged their feet through an eligibility issue (shocker). Insiders have raved about the 6'11 Egyptian's work ethic, as he's lost about 40 pounds from when he first arrived last October. He could be a sleeper on a team that desperately needs somebody to step up in the interior.
Jamal Johnson was a 3-star prospect out of Spain Park High School in Hoover, AL. He's the most highly-touted freshman joining the fold for the Tigers, and it's expected that he contribute early. It's yet to be seen how fellow 3-stars Nickelberry and Enoh will fit into the bigger picture, though they certainly have the opportunity to get involved in the regular rotation.
What to Watch For
Typically, this section is devoted to the "Three Keys to Victory", but considering how many unknowns remain for both teams, it's probably best just to see how it plays out and keep an eye out for a few things, including:
- The Tide's Rotation. Without Sexton, Key, Norris, and Davis, Alabama will be lacking a significant portion of the regular rotation the team was hoping to roll with. It will be interesting to see how Avery Johnson decides to play this out tonight. Will his son run things at the point most of the game? Will Dazon Ingram be the primary ball-handler as he was most of last season? Will the Tide ride with a physical approach by playing Donta Hall and Daniel Giddens at the same time to try to capitalize on one of Memphis' biggest weaknesses from last season?
- Herb Jones. All eyes will be on 5-star freshman John Petty and Ohio State transfer Giddens making their debuts, but all indications are that Jones, the 146th-ranked player according to 247 Composite, has been tearing it up in closed practices and scrimmages. The 6'7” product out of Hale County has the skills of a guard and the size of a wing, but he's been able to play a stretch-four type of role for the Tide as well. He's played so well that NBA scouts are starting to take notice of him, and some have even gone as far to say he could be a lottery pick one day. Keep an eye out on Jones, he could be huge while Norris and Key are out.
- Scheme. All indications so far are that Coach Avery wants to pick up the pace on the offensive end of the court. However, with two starters and another pair of reserve players out for the game tonight, he may instead decide to employ a safer, slower approach. Sexton had been the main distributor of the rock during off-season practices, and with him returning to the floor next week, Avery may just want to gut this game out and see how other players perform in their roles when Sexton isn't there to run the offense.
It's been an eventful off-season, but hopefully the actual season will be even more so. Being without Sexton, Key, Norris, and Davis tonight will make this an interesting game, as the Tide probably would've rolled through this brand-new Memphis team with their full arsenal of players. Tubby Smith is an extremely experienced coach, and he could give Avery some issues in the X's and O's.
Regardless, the season we've all been waiting for is finally upon us. Will Alabama basketball be able to make a run back to the top of the SEC and return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012? It all starts in Annapolis at 5:30 PM CST Friday night. The game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.