Alabama basketball enters the 2022-23 season with one of the hardest schedules in the country staring it dead in the face.
The Crimson Tide, which sits at No. 20 in the preseason AP Poll, has eight games against other ranked teams on its schedule, all of which sit in the top-15.
This is no different than a season ago, where Alabama faced the No. 2 ranked strength of schedule in all of college basketball according to the analytics service KenPom.
Last season’s schedule was a well-documented topic of discourse surrounding the roller coaster of a season that head coach Nate Oats’ third Alabama team went through. Alabama defeated three teams that went to the 2021 Final Four – Gonzaga, Baylor and Houston – participated in the ESPN Events Invitational and defeated Miami – a 2022 elite eight participants – and also played multiple mid-major conference champions before playing in the ever-improving SEC the rest of the season.
By the end of the season, Alabama held a record of 19-14, despite all of those big wins, and many observers of the program assigned blame to the difficulty of the schedule.
“I don’t think [the schedule] had anything to do with it,” Oats said.
Oats put much of the blame of last season’s shortcomings on mindset, claiming that if his teams can get up for games against teams like Gonzaga, it should have no problem being ready for games against lesser teams such as Georgia, Missouri or Iona.
“You beat Gonzaga, everybody thinks they’ve got it figured out,” Oats said. “It was more of a mindset of bringing it every game, not feeling yourself after a big win.”
Oats has said on many occasions that he would prefer to test his team in the non-conference and be exposed early in the season rather than being exposed in conference play and as March approaches. He said the team playing their best basketball in March is always the goal.
“I want our guys to play against tough teams, whether it’s the non-conference, preseason, whatever,” Oats said. “We’ll be better for it, it’s good for us.”
Alabama graduate student forward Noah Gurley returned to the Crimson Tide for his final year of eligibility after transferring in as a senior a season ago. He feels that it’s beneficial for the team to see other quality teams outside of the SEC before getting to the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re playing teams that we haven’t seen before in the NCAA Tournament,” Gurley said. “When we schedule these teams in the non-conference they play different depending on what conference they’re from. They have different strengths, different weaknesses. It’ll give us a good gist of college basketball across the country in general.”
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Gurley even gave an example of the differences between a few of Alabama’s upcoming non-conference opponents.
“Houston is an overly physical team. Gonzaga is a fast team. Memphis is a very talented team. Different flavors of college basketball,” Gurley said.
Just like last season, the trio of Gonzaga, Houston and Memphis are on Alabama’s schedule, albeit this time the games will take place in different arenas. The Crimson Tide will travel to the Fertitta Center to take on No. 3 Houston, No. 2 Gonzaga will visit Legacy Arena in Birmingham for the second annual CM Newton Classic, and Memphis will play a return game in Coleman Coliseum.
Additionally, Alabama will travel to Portland, Ore. During Thanksgiving week to play in one of the most talented multi-team event fields in all of college basketball in the Phil Knight Invitational.
In addition to Alabama, the PKI field consists of host team Portland, as well as Iowa State, UConn, Michigan State, No. 21 Oregon, No. 16 Villanova and No. 1 North Carolina. Alabama will face Michigan State in the first round, and will then play the winner or loser of Oregon/UConn.
Sophomore center Charles Bediako is excited about the challenges that Alabama will face this upcoming season.
“We love competition. We’re looking for the hardest teams to play,” Bediako said. “I’m really looking forward to going at it a second time. Our new guys are just realizing we look to challenge ourselves and play the toughest teams. It all helps for March especially.”
As Bediako mentioned, Alabama has a very young team including a four-man freshman class that all has a chance to see significant minutes. Only four member of Alabama’s team took the court for the Crimson Tide last season, one of which is Jahvon Quinerly, who will be out until at least December recovering from an ACL tear.
Because of the youth that will be contributing, it is reasonable to expect there to be a steep learning curve for a group of teenagers as they adjust to the college game, especially against such a difficult schedule. Oats believes it will be good for the team in the long run.
“I think you’ll see a lot of growth from us from non-conference to conference play because of our youth that potentially could be starters,” Oats said.
Even apart from the non-conference schedule, which has already been established to be difficult, the SEC has evolved into one of the best leagues in the sport. Alabama is the fifth-highest ranked team in the conference in the preseason AP Poll, behind No. 4 Kentucky, No. 10 Arkansas, No. 11 Tennessee and No. 15 Auburn. Texas A&M and Florida also received votes in the poll.
Despite the ever-improving SEC, Oats doesn’t seem to have any aspirations of changing the way he creates his schedules. He wants his teams to be tested, and this year’s team will be no different. The biggest question that remains is if Oats ‘fourth Alabama team will be more mentally ready than his third.
“They should have a big chip on their shoulders,” Oats said.
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