For former Alabama basketball coach CM Newton, the off-conference schedule was designed to be tough. “To be the best, you have to beat the best,” was his philosophy.
There is more than one way to be successful in approaching the non-conference plan. Wimp Sanderson, who would succeed Newton and continue the success of Crimson Tide basketball, apparently scoured the college basketball landscape to find teams that would be easy picks for early season games as he built his team.
Bama basketball wasn’t in the baby pool earlier this season, but it was in the flat end. As of tonight it’s in deep water.
Nate Oats believes in a strict schedule outside of the conference. Last year it was judged the toughest in the nation, and that conversation will happen again this year as the Tide will face Houston, Gonzaga and Oklahoma.
And Michigan State, the Crimson Tide’s opponent on Thursday night in the opening round of the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland, Oregon. Already in the category of games with a really tough schedule, TheSpartans will be Bama’s first real test.
Tipoff will be at 9:30 p.m. CST (7:30 a.m. Pacific Time) at the Moda Center, home of the Portland Trailblazers. ESPN will televise the game. Not Bleach, but the announcers are Roxy Bernstein and Bill Walton.
Potential Bama opponents in Portland include Oregon and UConn.
Michigan State (3-1) is 12th in the nation, Alabama (4-0) 18th.
The Tide had an easy time eliminating four medium-sized opponents, Longwood, Liberty and Jacksonville State in Tuscaloosa and South Alabama in Mobile.
The state of Michigan has taken a more difficult path. After a 73-55 tuning against Northern Arizona, the Spartans lost a heartbreaker, 64-63, to No. 2 Gonzaga and then defeated No. 4 Kentucky, 86-77 in double overtime, and Villanova, 73-71.
“Have we been tested enough?” Oats mused before today’s game. “We played three good mid-majors. This isn’t Gonzaga, Kentucky.
“They are 3-1 and should be 4-0. They played against tougher teams, but we played against decent teams and played well.
“I think we did the right thing with a young team.”
Alabama is indeed a young team, a team of newcomers. Bama has started the season with the same lineup every game — 7-0 sophomore center Charles Bediako (4.3 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game), junior transfer guard Mark Sears (15.3 ppg), soph guard Nimari Burnett (9.3 ppg), 6-10 freshman forward Noah Clowney (6.8 ppg, 10.5 rpg), and 6-9 freshman forward Brandon Miller (20.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg). The Tide has had good bench production including freshman guards Jaden Bradley (8.89 ppg) and Rylan Griffen (10.3 ppg).
Veteran Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is bringing back nine lettermen from last year, including seniors — forward 6-8 Malik Hall 12 ppg) and 6-9 Joey Hauser (14 ppg) and guard Tyson Walker (13.5 ppg) — the have played a collective 278 games with 177 starts.
Comparative stats don’t tell much when you factor in competitive differences, but Alabama is averaging 84.8 points per game to Michigan State’s 73.8. The Tide allows 57.5 ppg, the Spartans 66.8. Alabama leads the nation in rebounds per game (56), offensive rebounds per game (19.5), and rebound margin (24.5). Michigan State is retiring 38.5 per game versus their opponents 35.3.
Alabama and Michigan State have only met twice before, Alabama winning 81-69 in Atlanta in December 1983 and the Spartans winning 75-58 in Hawaii in December 1988.