Sports fans in Mobile have a big decision to make starting next month. Either we have to decide to get an early seat on the South Alabama basketball train that is quickly picking up speed or we have to forfeit the right to say things like, “I would support South Alabama basketball if the team was any good,” or “I knew Richie Riley was going to do great things even before he left for (fill in the blank of the Power 5 school that will soon hire away the 36-year-old rising star).”
I’m never going to preach about how anyone should spend their expendable income or free time. If some people would rather go to the movies or a concert instead of a live basketball game, then they have every right to make that choice. They aren’t somehow avoiding their civic duty by making that choice.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t recommend a good product when I see it. South Alabama basketball has a real chance to be the next big thing in Mobile, and I don’t want anyone to miss out because they didn’t know there was something special brewing.
South Alabama won 17 games a year ago, the most for the program in six years. They also lost 17, so it’s not like they were world beaters.
But the best players from that team return, led by Josh Ajayi, Trhae Mitchell and Herb McGee. They also return John Pettway, cousin of former Alabama star and current Tide assistant coach Antoine Pettway, and Kevin Morris.
That’s a strong enough nucleus to make the Jaguars contenders for the Sun Belt Conference championship. But that’s not why Lindy’s magazine and Street and Smith magazine have tabbed the Jags to win the conference title.
There was debate last year about whether the three best players on campus might have been on the sideline for every game while they sat out as transfers. Now those three players — Don Cole from California, Andre Fox from High Point and Josh Ayeni from St. Bonaventure — are eligible to play. They will be joined by Chad Lott, a graduate transfer from Howard.
That solid roster combined with the energetic and likeable Riley could be the formula to make USA one of this year’s March Madness darlings.
Riley is a native of Kentucky who grew up dreaming of being the next great coach from the state instead of the next great player. He coached with former South Alabama and Auburn coach Cliff Ellis at Coastal Carolina. He had assistant coaching jobs at UAB and Clemson before being named head coach at Nicholls State, where his team won 14 games in the first season then 21 and a conference championship the second year.
Now, it appears he has South Alabama on a similar course with a team that is likely to be the most talented in Mobile in the last decade.
Of course, they will have to be good to navigate the early non-conference schedule. And this is where sports fans in Mobile will have to decide if they want to be one of the early adopters when it comes to this team.
The Jaguars open with three home games. The first is Nov. 6 against the University of Pikeville. The Kentucky school is where Riley began his head coaching career and the Bears are one of the favorites to win the NAIA national championship this season.
Three days later, USA hosts Southern Miss on a Saturday when the Jag football team is on the road, but many fans will be sitting at home watching LSU face Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Three nights after that, Tuesday, Nov. 12, South Alabama welcomes the Auburn Tigers. You know, the team that made it all the way to the Final 4 last year and was a missed double-dribble call from probably winning the national championship. Auburn has only one game prior to facing South Alabama, a home date against Georgia Southern.
Mark your calendars for Nov. 12 at the Mitchell Center. Better yet, go ahead and buy your tickets because this has a chance to be the first time in recent memory that a sports ticket was hard to get in Mobile. The only hard sellout I can remember in the last decade was when Alabama’s softball team visited South Alabama. Of course, filling Jaguar Field is not the same thing as selling out the Mitchell Center.
Just like that softball game, there will be many fans in the Mitchell Center cheering for the visiting team. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the arena should also be filled with local sports fans who don’t want to miss out on the next big thing in Mobile sports.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 17 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. Follow him on Twitter: @kennedy_randy.
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