A new-look South Alabama basketball team opens its 2022-23 schedule Wednesday night vs. Mobile at the Mitchell Center, something of a calm before what should be a pre-Sun Belt Conference storm.
The Jaguars play only four non-conference games at home, and one of those is highly anticipated matchup Tuesday with Alabama South Alabama also travels to New Mexico, Oklahoma and UAB — among others — in 12-game early-season schedule that coach Richie Riley describes as the “toughest” in his five years at South Alabama.
“I think it will prepare us very well for Sun Belt play,” Riley said. “Now, hopefully we don’t have to go through too many tough moments to get there, because your non-con slate, based on how you’re playing, can be really long. … I think we have a group with the maturity level and the approach to really take a lot from this slate besides wins and losses. We have a group that can take a lot from it and better prepare us to have a chance to win a league championship, because that’s what it’s about.”
Riley’s team this season barely resembles the one that went 21-12 last season and reached the semifinals of The Basketball Classic tournament. Only five scholarship players return, just one — forward Frente Smith — who was among the Jaguars’ top six in minutes and points per game.
Also back are point guard Tyrell “Turbo” Jones — who played in just 18 games last year due to a broken foot — and shooting guard Greg Parham, who missed the entire season with a back injury. Front-court role players Marshall Kearing and Tyler Shirley will also return, though a large portion of this year’s production is expected to come from five transfers.
The biggest name arrival is 7-foot, 260-pound center Kevin Samuel, who spent three years at TCU and was the ASUN Defensive Player of the Year last season at Florida Gulf Coast. Samuel — who averaged 11.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game at FGCU in 2021-22 — was a preseason All-Sun Belt first-team selection despite being a newcomer in the league.
“Coach Riley has put me in a great situation,” Samuel said. “I’m just by trying to be as best as I can be on offense and on defense. He lets me do my thing, being a great anchor on defense and trying to do more on offense. I’m just trying to lead this team to get more wins and being aggressive every time I get the ball.”
Forward Judah Brown has also joined the Jaguars from St. Mary’s of California, while the other three transfers come from the Division II ranks. That group includes forward Elijah Ormiston (Concordia-St. Cloud) and guards Isaiah Moore (Franklin Pierce College) and Owen White (Michigan Tech).
Two freshmen — guard Jamar Franklin and forward Julian Margrave — are also expected to have roles this season. After relying heavily on Division I transfers each of the last three offseasons, Riley went a different route this past recruiting cycle.
“We tried to take a creative approach this time,” Riley said. “We looked not only at D1 guys, but we really dove into the transfer portal market, trying to identify the best players at the Division II and Division III levels who would fit with us. Moore and White were Division II All-Americans. They have a chance to be among the best players we’ve ever had here.
“And then we mixed in some guys with some Division I experience. Kevin Samuel is a guy who has 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 blocks in his career. There are only a couple of players in the country that can say that. When you put them with the guys we have coming back, I think our roster has really come together nicely. I’m excited to see us play against somebody else.”
South Alabama was picked to finish third in the newly fortified Sun Belt, behind only preseason favorite Louisiana and defending champion Texas State. The Jaguars open Sun Belt play Dec. 29 at Georgia Southern.
As in every sport, the Sun Belt has grown not only in size, but in competitiveness. Southern Miss, Old Dominion, James Madison and Marshall join what is now a 14-team league this year following the departure of UT Arlington and Little Rock.
“I think the Sun Belt is going to be the toughest one-bid (to the NCAA tournament) league in the country,” Riley said. “This league is going to have so much parity. There are probably 10 teams that can win it. Our league has so much balance. Everyone can show up on a given night and beat you. That’s a rare thing in college basketball.”
Tip-off vs. Mobile Wednesday night is set for 7 pm at the Mitchell Center. The Rams, coached by former South Alabama assistant Darnell Archey, are off to a 3-0 start after victories over Point University, Toccoa Falls and Pensacola Christian.
Here’s South Alabama’s complete 2022-23 basketball schedule (home games in all caps and all times Central):
Wednesday, Nov. 9, MOBILE, 7 pm
Friday, Nov. 11, at New Mexico, 8 pm
Tuesday, Nov. 15, ALABAMA, 9 pm, ESPNU
Friday, Nov. 18, at Oklahoma, 7 pm
Friday, Nov. 25, vs. Evansville, 5:30 pm^
Saturday, Nov. 26, Towson, 1:30 pm^
Sunday, Nov. 27, Robert Morris, 1:30 pm^
Wednesday, Nov. 30, at Florida Atlantic, 6 pm
Sunday, Dec. 4, at UAB, 1 pm, ESPNU
Monday, Dec. 12, at Alabama A&M, TBD
Monday, Dec. 19, SPRING HILL, 7 pm
Wednesday, Dec. 21, JACKSONVILLE STATE, 7 pm
Thursday, Dec. 29, at Georgia Southern*, 7 pm
Saturday, Dec. 31, at Georgia State*, 1 pm
Thursday, Jan. 5, ARKANSAS STATE*, 7 pm
Saturday, Jan. 7, TEXAS STATE*, TBA
Thursday, Jan. 12, JAMES MADISON*, 7 pm
Saturday, Jan. 14, LOUISIANA*, 3 pm
Thursday, Jan. 19, at Southern Miss*, 7 pm
Saturday, Jan. 21, at Coastal Carolina*, 1 pm
Thursday, Jan. 26, OLD DOMINION*, 7 pm
Saturday, Jan. 28, TROY*, 3 pm
Thursday, Feb. 2, at Arkansas State*, 7 pm
Saturday, Feb. 4, at Louisiana-Monroe*, 2 pm
Thursday, Feb. 9, at Troy*, 7:15 pm
Saturday, Feb. 11, APPALACHIAN STATE*, 5 pm
Monday, Feb. 13, HARTFORD, 7 pm
Thursday, Feb. 16, SOUTHERN MISS*, 7 pm
Saturday, Feb. 18, LOUISIANA-MONROE*, 3 pm
Wednesday, Feb. 22, at Texas State*, 7 pm
Friday, Feb. 24, at Louisiana*, TBA
Tuesday, Feb. 28-Monday, March 6, Sun Belt tournament, at Pensacola (Fla.) Bay Center
^ — Hostilo Hoops Community Classic, Savannah, Ga.
* — Sun Belt Conference game