TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — JaMychal Green has already boosted Alabama's mood, even though the All-Southeastern Conference forward won't be allowed back on the court for at least one more game.
Crimson Tide freshman Trevor Lacey said the suspension of Green and Tony Mitchell — the team's two most experienced players — cast a pall over practices for a while. Green returned Monday while Mitchell is out for the rest of the season.
"Practice has been different," Lacey said Tuesday. "The spirit in practice has been different. When they first got suspended, practice was dead. No one was talking. It was just straight practice. But now people are communicating, and there's excitement in practice. Everyone's just having fun."
Tide coach Anthony Grant said Green won't play Thursday night at Arkansas, and his status for Saturday's Mississippi State game will be determined after that.
Having the leading scorer and rebounder back after a suspension that will run to at least four games could end up being a boon for Alabama's NCAA tournament hopes.
The Tide (17-9, 6-6 SEC) is coming off a 62-50 win over Tennessee after losing the first two games without Green, with four remaining before the league tournament in New Orleans.
The program's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006 remains well within reach despite the recent setbacks.
"We still have the same goal," Lacey said. "We feel like we can still compete with everyone in the country. It'll be just a little tougher with lack of experience without J-Mike and Tony."
Not every question has been resolved, including when Green will play for Alabama again, and whether Mitchell ever will.
Asked if Mitchell will return for his senior season, Grant merely said: "I don't know."
The coach also declined to elaborate on the factors behind his decision to allow Green back to practice — or what will determine when he returns to the lineup.
"For our team, we've got a season that we're playing," Grant said. "We've got a lot that we're playing for. I think our guys are excited about the opportunity to play and compete. We understand the biggest challenge for us right now is the challenge that Arkansas presents us."
The absence of Mitchell and Green did provide ample opportunity for more experience among four freshmen and sophomore 7-footers Carl Engstrom and Moussa Gueye, who missed the first 12 games while recovering from August knee surgery.
Gueye blocked six shots against Tennessee, his first start. Engstrom has matched or topped his season-high for minutes in each of the past three games.
Lacey scored 18 points against Tennessee, one shy of his career high. Fellow freshman Rodney Cooper opened the season as a starter and returned to that role the last three games, scoring 28 against LSU with four players on suspension.
Levi Randolph, the only freshman who has started more than half of the Tide's games, has collected 21 rebounds over the last three. Freshman forward Nick Jacobs was limited against the Volunteers with an infection that led to a root canal but Grant said he should be OK against Arkansas.
"We've had several guys who have maybe seen more consistent playing time than they had seen before," Grant said. "It's good to see them step up and do some things that they're capable of and certainly help our team."
Green, though, is the team's only senior and most accomplished player. He's averaging 14.1 points and 7.2 rebounds.
Teammate Andrew Steele is eagerly awaiting his return to games.
"Any time we can get somebody with that much experience and the talent level he's got, I think that will help our team a lot," Steele said. "It gives us a down-low post presence. I feel like he's one of the best players not only in the SEC but in the country. I only see positives out of it."
Losing Mitchell means playing without a 13-point scorer known for his drives and explosive dunks, who was averaging 7.0 rebounds a game.
"It's a disappointment," Steele said. "Obviously he's someone that could help our team with the talents that he has, but we understand that it was coach's decision to make and we've got to stand behind it."