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Alabama at Arizona is a ‘can’t-miss’ non-conference game

Alabama may be ranked to start the season, and Arizona will likely be a top-five team

NCAA Basketball: Northern Colorado at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats have a rather uninspiring home non-conference schedule this season, but there is at least one game that should be intriguing.

That’s on Dec. 9 when the Alabama Crimson Tide venture to Tucson.

Led by former NBA player Avery Johnson, the Crimson Tide were 19-15 (10-8 SEC) last season, but are expected to improve in 2017-18 thanks to a strong group of returners and a highly-ranked recruiting class, including star point guard Collin Sexton.

CBS ranked Alabama 19th in its preseason poll back in July.

Meanwhile, Arizona is expected to be a preseason top-five team (maybe even No. 1), making December’s matchup one of 10 “can’t-miss” non-conference games, according to Kerry Miller of Bleacher Report.

Here’s what Miller wrote about Alabama:

In most seasons, this game wouldn't even register as a blip on the national radar. Arizona is always a contender, but Alabama has lost at least a dozen games in a dozen consecutive seasons. The Crimson Tide have not won an NCAA tournament game since the first round in 2006.

But thanks to Collin Sexton, this should finally be their year—provided Kobie Baker's resignation amid an FBI probe doesn't result in Sexton being ruled ineligible.

Arguably the best backcourt player in this year's recruiting class and easily the best high school talent Alabama has signed in many moons, Sexton is the piece this roster was missing. The Crimson Tide have several quality two-way, multipositional players, but the lack of a true point guard caused them to struggle in 2016-17.

They committed nearly 14 turnovers per game, finished the season with 84 more turnovers than assists and shot 65.3 percent from the free-throw line. In all three areas, they were one of the worst major-conference teams in the country. Outstanding defense enabled them to win 19 games, but making Dazon Ingram and Braxton Key the primary ball-handlers was an experiment doomed to fail.

With Sexton on board, this team can make some noise, and this will be one of its first chances to show it.

Alabama was 10th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, per KenPom, and both Arizona and Alabama play at slow paces, so don’t expected December’s matchup to be high-scoring.

Arizona, though arguably the top team in the country, may be without Rawle Alkins, which would be a sizable loss.

The sophomore guard broke his foot in late September and was announced to be out for 8-12 weeks, putting his return sometime between late November and late December.

The Wildcats will miss Alkins’ all-around game, but do have capable replacements in highly-ranked freshmen Brandon Randolph and Emmanuel Akot.

Like Arizona, Alabama is clouded with uncertainty right now, as it’s part of the recruiting scandal that the FBI unveiled a couple weeks ago.

Arizona assistant coach Book Richardson was arrested for bribery and corruption, while Alabama assistant Kobie Baker resigned after Alabama conducted its own investigation after the FBI’s went public.

The two teams will face each other in 2018-19, too, only that matchup will take place in Tuscaloosa.

Other interesting non-conference games on Arizona’s schedule this year are vs. N.C. State on Nov. 22 in the Bahamas, and vs. UCONN in Tucson on Dec. 21.

There’s also the game against Texas A&M on Dec. 5 in Phoenix.

Arizona may play Villanova in late November, too, depending how Battle 4 Atlantis shakes out (you can see Arizona’s full schedule here).

But there’s no question that Alabama will be the toughest non-Pac-12 team to play in Tucson this year.

We also might see new Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne make his return to McKale, so Dec. 9 should be fun.

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire