TUSCALOOSA _ It goes without saying that a Southeastern Conference coach never quite knows how good his or her team is until league play starts, but this year that may be doubly so for Anthony Grant.
The University of Alabama men's basketball coach has the unenviable position of traveling to Mississippi State on Saturday (3 p.m., SEC Network) with his team not having won a road game this season, and unsure if the Crimson Tide is any better from this time a year ago.
"That's a touch question to answer," he said Thursday.
However, there are signs. After a horrendous showing at the Paradise Jam, and subsequent high-profile defeats at Purdue, Providence and against Oklahoma State, Alabama has won three straight and for once appears to be have some roster stability.
Sophomore forward/guard Andrew Steele is back after missing the first half of the season (knees) and nearly all of 2009-10 (stress fracture). Freshman forward Jason Carter and freshman guard Charles Hankerson are expected to play after being benched for Monday's game against depleted Toledo, and freshman point guard Trevor Releford is back practicing after having the stomach flu.
Only junior guard Kendall Durant remains out with a left foot fracture.
"I think over the first 14 games we have figured things out as a coaching staff, and the guys have better understood what roles they need to fill," said Grant, who including his three seasons at VCU is 4-0 in conference openers. "We are doing a much better job of handling the basketball. I think the progress we have shown through the first part of our schedule is what you want to see."
In addition to fewer turnovers Alabama's defense has been better, giving up just 56.5 points per game which ranks eighth nationally.
"We're focused now and have a better understanding of it," sophomore forward JaMychal Green said. We want to play defense now. I feel like earlier we really didn't want to prepare, now we get after it."
Alabama won its SEC opener last year at LSU, 66-49, but then lost in every other league arena until its final road game at South Carolina, 79-70. The Crimson Tide finished 6-10 (17-15 overall) and tied for fourth in the conference.
A win in Starkville could go a long way in improving that.
"Yeah, it's a big game," senior guard Senario Hillman said.
However, the spotlight won't be on the visiting team, but Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury.
Following their high-profile fight in the stands at a tournament in Hawaii co-captain Elgin Bailey left the team and is transferring while McDonald's All-American Renardo Sidney was suspended indefinitely for the second time this season only to be back on the court after missing just two games.
"You don't like for anytime to have an incident like we had," Stansbury said during a press conference Thursday. "That's difficult enough in itself. That's about all I'm gonna say about that situation. We're gonna move on. I don't worry about things I can't control."
Meanwhile, junior point guard Dee Bost is finally set to play his first game this season after being suspended for both academic reasons and for failing to withdraw from the 2010 NBA draft before the deadline.
"He's going to come out really aggressive and be ready to play," Hillman predicted. "My assignment is to try and stop him the best I can, know when to attack and when to defend."
While guard Raven Johnson leads the Bulldogs in scoring, averaging 20.1 points despite a recent slump, the 6-foot-10 Sidney is averaging 15.5 points and 4.5 rebounds.
"Just turn and face him and use my quickness," Green said.
Nevertheless, preseason the SEC West favorite is 8-6 and coming off a 1-4 stretch on the road.
Alabama has the same record but believes it may have turned a corner. After coming off his three-game suspension Green has been a different player, averaging 16.3 points and 9.0 rebounds per game while shooting 58.6 percent from the field and 78.9 percent from the free-throw line. He's 20 of 29 (.690) from the field in his last three games.
Also with a hot hand is senior shooting guard Charvez Davis, who has shot 16 of 24 (.667) from 3-point range during in the past three games, avenging 19.3 points, while sophomore Tony Mitchell has been the team's most steady player offensively, averaging 14.6 points and 7.9 rebounds.
"We have to come out with great energy," Davis said. "We have a lot of confidence coming into the game. I think we'll be ready."
Strangely, history may be on Alabama's side. The Tide has won four of the five times it opened the conference schedule against Mississippi State, including both games in Starkville.
"When you start conference play, you can take everything you have done up to that point and throw it out the window," Grant said. "I think our first matchup makes for a great game and a really exciting atmosphere."