With conference play beginning this week for the state's Big 3 men's basketball teams, it's time to assess what we have learned about Alabama, Auburn and UAB in non-conference action.
Let's start with ...
The Blazers have established themselves as a leading contender in Conference USA after being picked to finish anywhere from sixth-to-10th in the preseason. They were ranked briefly last week (No. 24 in the Associated Press poll) before dropping out following a loss at Virginia 72-63 and a narrow win at Arkansas 73-72. The loss to Virginia snapped a 10-game winning streak. During the streak the Blazers beat two ranked teams, Cincinnati (64-47) and Butler (67-57).
Not bad for a team that began the season with nine new players on its roster.
Junior swingman Elijah Millsap has emerged as a leading contender for the C-USA player of the year award. He leads UAB in scoring (16.7 ppg), rebounding (9.7 rpg), steals (2.0 spg) and free throws made (67) and attempted (99). The Louisiana-Lafayette transfer has led the Blazers in scoring and/or rebounding in 12 of their 14 games this season.
Senior forward Howard Crawford (pictured right against Butler) has become an offensive threat and is second on the team in scoring (13.2 ppg), while junior guard Jamarr Sanders, a junior college transfer, adds 11.1 ppg and leads the team in three-pointers made (28) and attempted (72).
The Blazers' aggressive man-to-man defense allows them to stay competitive in any game and head coach Mike Davis has developed a nice eight-man rotation, getting solid contributions off the bench from center Kenneth Cooper, forward Cameron Moore and guard Dexter Fields. But Davis must find a way to get a little more rest for point guard Aaron Johnson, who is playing 35.7 minutes per game.
The Blazers have a favorable schedule to open C-USA play, beginning Wednesday night at home against East Carolina, so they could get off to a fast start.
"It's a new season for us, one that we've worked hard to get to," Davis said. "That's why in your non-conference schedule, you always try and play some road games and experience some tough situations. The non-conference is really to work on your rotations. Our guys have that down and understand their role on the team.
"We feel really good about the conference play. We feel like we've played at Virginia and Arkansas, two teams that could match any venue in our conference. We played Cincinnati and Butler at home. We had big crowds at those games, so now our first game against Memphis is not our biggest crowd so our guys don't feel that pressure of coming out and playing well."
The Crimson Tide is right where I thought they would be. They blew out Toledo 67-50 Monday night in their first true road game (on an opponent's home court). It was Alabama's third consecutive win and improved the Tide's record to 10-4, which means the Tide has won all the games it was supposed to win with the possible exception of Michigan when the Wolverines were ranked No. 15 and lost all the games it was expected to lose, including three to ranked opponents (Purdue, Kansas State and Florida State) and also to defending Ivy League champion Cornell.
Sophomore forward JaMychal Green (15.7 points per game, 7.0 rebounds per game, pictured right) and senior guard Mikhail Torrance (15.8 ppg) have emerged as a great inside-outside duo. They are surrounded by several complementary players.
First-year Alabama head coach Anthony Grant has the Tide playing up-tempo and trying to force turnovers to create offense. They are forcing 16 turnovers per game and are holding opponents to 64.6 points per game. But it hasn't exactly translated into an offensive explosion. The Tide is averaging only 72.5 points.
Perhaps that will change when the team gets two key players back. The Tide was down to eight scholarship players to start the New Year because freshman forward Tony Mitchell was out with the flu and sophomore guard Andrew Steele is out with a stress fracture in his foot. Mitchell, the team's third-leading scorer (9.3 ppg), probably will return Saturday when Alabama visits LSU in its Southeastern Conference opener, but Steele, who was starting before his injury, is expected to be sidelined for two more weeks. The Tide needs a full complement of players to compete in the SEC.
"We're not a basketball team that has a large margin of error," Grant said. "Defensively we've got to do a better job tightening up in terms of our ability to contain and rebound the basketball. Offensively, guys are understanding what their roles and what we need to get accomplished as a team. Those are things we've harped on all season and things that will be needed once we start conference play."
With two of their first three conference games on road at LSU and at Arkansas and a home game against Vanderbilt, we'll find out quickly if the Tide is ready to contend in the SEC West.
The Tigers were picked to finish last in the SEC West and have done little to show they won't be in that position come March. Their 9-6 record has been built on beating a bunch of nobodies and they have had some bad losses, including their first-ever setback to Troy and a blowout at home to Sam Houston State (107-89).
Auburn will struggle in the SEC because the Tigers don't have any low-post game to speak of and have to rely heavily on their perimeter game, featuring guards Dwayne Reed (15.4 ppg, pictured right), Frankie Sullivan (13.6 ppg) and Tay Waller (13.0 ppg). Forward Lucas Hargrove averages 13.7 points, but does most of his damage on the wing or slashing to the basket.
"We are small," Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said. "Rebounding at times will be an issue for us. Our best offensive group is our three smaller guys. We have to give up something there. That is a concern with SEC play right around the corner."
Auburn opens conference play Saturday at home against South Carolina. The Tigers better win that one because I don't see them winning any of their next seven SEC games at Tennessee, vs. Kentucky, at LSU, at Vanderbilt, vs. Ole Miss, vs. Alabama and at Arkansas.