Alabama basketball coach Anthony Grant gives instructions to freshman forward Tony Mitchell during exhibition game against Montevallo. (Photo from RollTide.com)
The Alabama Crimson Tide, Auburn Tigers and UAB Blazers -- the so-called "Big Three" of men's college basketball in the state -- are in midst of exhibition season as they prepare to open their 2009-10 regular seasons next week.
UAB crushed NCAA Division II Miles 97-49 on Tuesday behind 25 points from newcomer Elijah Millsap, a 6-foot-6 forward from
None of the "Big Three" have high expectations for the season. In the SEC Preseason Media Poll,
UAB was forecast to finish in the middle of the pack -- anywhere from sixth to eighth -- in Conference
But just because the pundits don't think highly of the Tide, Tigers and Blazers it doesn't mean the head coaches won't be feeling some heat.
From this vantage point, I think Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo is under the most pressure, followed by UAB's Mike Davis and
Lebo enters his sixth season at Auburn, coming off his best season. He guided Auburn to the second-most wins in school history with a 24-12 record and tied for second overall in the SEC with a 10-6 record. The Tigers were one of the last teams left out of the NCAA Tournament and came close to reaching the NIT Final Four.
With the Tigers set to open a new $92 million arena next season, Lebo is expected to keep Auburn headed in the right direction. But it won't be easy with longtime starters Korvotney Barber, Rasheem Barrett and Quantez Robertson gone. They do have 6-1 senior point guard DeWayne Reed, a preseason second-team All-SEC selection, and 6-6 forward Lucas Hargrove returning as well as key reserve guards Frankie Sullivan and Tay Waller.
But Auburn will undergo an extreme makeover on the inside as seldom-used Brendon Knox and Johnnie Lett, and newcomers Rob Chubb, a 6-10 center, and Kenny Gabriel, a 6-8 junior college transfer, try to make up for the departures of Barber and Barrett.
Lebo already has done yeomen work in making
Last season, the Blazers were 22-12 and finished third in C-USA with an 11-5 record, but they have lost seven players, including six seniors, off that team, most notably the all-C-USA trio of Lawrence Kinnard, Paul Delaney III and Robert Vaden. They were the first threesome of UAB teammates to reach the 1,000-career-point plateau in the same season.
Millsap is one of nine new faces on the court for the Blazers. Graduate student transfers George Drake, a 6-4 swingman who played three seasons at Vanderbilt, and Kenneth Cooper, a 6-10 center from Louisiana Tech, and junior college transfer Jamarr Sanders, who played a year at
Despite all the newcomers,
"Conference USA is going to be an improved league from top to bottom so we are going to have our work cut out for us," Davis said.
Finally, Anthony Grant, coming over from VCU, has to show he was the right choice to succeed the departed Mark Gottfried in the rugged SEC. Plus, Grant is the first African-American basketball coach at Alabama, so he will be scrutinized, fairly or unfairly, for that as well.
"Being the first African-American head coach in a major sport at
Grant, a former
Grant has a decent nucleus left over at Alabama with Green, a second-team preseason All-SEC selection, senior point guard Mikhail Torrance, senior guard Anthony Brock, sophomore guard Senario Hillman and sophomore guard Andrew Steele.
Gone are forwards Alonzo Gee (graduated) and Demetrius Jemison (injured), so junior forward Justin Knox and newcomers Chris Hines, a junior college transfer, and Tony Mitchell, a freshman will be counted on.
Grant has brought in an up-tempo style and a full-court pressure defense, so