North Florida-Alabama Preview
Alabama's basketball team is mindful of what happened last November, and what consequently didn't occur in March.
The Crimson Tide sports returning stars JaMychal Green, Tony Mitchell and Trevor Releford, a preseason No. 19 ranking and a nonconference schedule that could be a big boost when NCAA tournament invites are being delivered.
Alabama was shut out of the field last season despite flirting with a regular season Southeastern Conference title going into the final week. Three straight nonconference losses to middling teams Seton Hall, Iowa and Saint Peter's in November and no real stock-boosting wins outside the league contributed to a low power rating and an NCAA shutout.
"We just want to get some nonconference wins under our belt so when it comes down to the decision for the NCAA tournament, we have some good wins,'' said Green, a first-team All-SEC forward.
Chances abound to impress the selection committee before league play for a program that hasn't made the tournament since 2006. Alabama (25-12) opens its season Friday night against North Florida before later games against Georgetown, Final Four team VCU and Oklahoma State and visits Georgia Tech and Kansas State besides playing in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
Despite the loss of key role players and only six returnees, Grant's third Alabama team certainly shapes up as the most likely to be able to fare well in those types of games.
The starting trio of Green, Mitchell and Releford helped the Tide shrug off the NCAA disappointment and make it to the NIT championship game. Grant added a strong signing class that included the state's two-time Mr. Basketball in Trevor Lacey, fellow guards Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper and big man Nick Jacobs.
Green's three-game suspension early last season contributed to some of the problems but he wound up averaging 15.5 points and 7.5 rebounds. The 6-foot-6 swingman Mitchell (15.2, 7.1) wasn't far behind in either of those categories but could have to log more time at power forward with little experience beyond Green in the post with the loss of Chris Hines.
Releford was an instant starter at point guard for the Tide and got some extra seasoning in the NIT.
Alabama also loses its top 3-point shooter Charvez Davis from a team that made the league's fewest baskets from beyond the arc. Defense wasn't a problem last season, but scoring and perimeter shooting were.
That's where the new guys come in.
Lacey, a shooting guard, is Alabama's most heralded recruit at least since Green in a state where top recruits like DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe bolted for Kentucky and other locales in recent years. Cooper and Randolph also could provide early boosts to the backcourt and some more outside shooting.
Rivals.com rated Lacey as a five-star recruit and the nation's 24th-best prospect, and he averaged 31.4 points as a senior. He had knee surgery in June to repair a problem he played through during his final prep season. Grant said that set him back in conditioning.
Lacey still arrived on campus for the fall with high expectations at a position where one of the freshmen is almost certainly going to have to step up.
"From what I've seen, he's an extremely humble kid,'' Grant said. "He understands it's a completely different experience. I think he understands that in terms of what he's got to do and the learning curve.''
The 6-8, 250-pound Jacobs was a four-star recruit who could supply some of the inside muscle lost with Hines.
Carl Engstrom, a 7-1 sophomore from Sweden, saw limited time in 21 games last season.
"The opportunity certainly will be there'' for the newcomers, Grant said. "The fact that we have six guys returning off last year's team shows there's opportunity there.''
Alabama's 12-4 SEC mark trailed only Florida in the league last season. A loss to Mississippi followed by a 27-point humbling at Florida took the Tide out of the running.
It still created some late-season drama that led to sellout crowds at a school where typically only the football stadium regularly fills up.
North Florida (15-19) was picked to finish third in the Atlantic Sun coaches' preseason poll after going 10-10 and landing in sixth place in the league last season. The Ospreys return all but one starter along with junior guard Parker Smith, the team's leading scorer at 12.0 points per game despite coming off the bench.
North Florida will certainly have plenty of chances to prove itself before opening conference play. After the opener, the Ospreys also visit Florida, Miami, Ohio State, Kansas State, Auburn and Virginia Tech.
First, though, is trying to contain the Crimson Tide - something they didn't do in a 73-51 loss in Tuscaloosa on Dec. 2, 2009. Green had seven points on 1-of-7 shooting.
"Our fans and everybody have big expectations for us this year,'' said Green, who scored 21 points in a 67-60 exhibition win over Division II Alabama-Huntsville on Monday. "They want to see us in the tournament and make it into the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four. We've got a lot on our shoulders this year.
"Fans have been coming up to us telling us how excited they are about the upcoming season. Now, it's a football and a basketball school.''
Well, only if Alabama lives up to the hoops hopes.