Let me just start out by saying that I was so disgusted by not only what went down Saturday in Auburn's Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum, but also in how it went down, that I couldn't bring myself to look at anything college basketball related for over 24 hours, much less post a lucid story about the incident on the Plains.
Well that 24 hours has now since passed, and at this time I will at least attempt to share my reactions in a coherent way to what was, for me anyway, the most disappointing Alabama basketball loss in several years.
My first reaction stems from the fact that we lost to Auburn. I hate Auburn. Listening to their band and students do the whole mock Rammer-Jammer thing makes my blood boil. I can't stand it. I can't stand seeing their fans celebrate in a sport that all but about 3,000-4,000 of them care nothing about, unless of course Alabama or Kentucky happens to be in the building (that's about how many fans actually show up for most of their conference games, probably the fewest of any major college in the country, definitely by far the fewest in the SEC).
Which brings me to my next point. This loss against Auburn really hurt our basketball season, in a lot of ways, and Coach Grant and many of the players seemed to echo in their post-game comments my own sentiment that this loss was easily the biggest setback of our season so far. So I must admit, it kinda bugs me when I hear fellow Tide fans say, "oh it's okay, we beat them in football." Yes, we did beat them in football, and that was wonderful, but this isn't football. And while football may be far more important culturally in the state of Alabama, and the Alabama-Auburn football rivalry is certainly more intense among most fans of both schools, college basketball is still a really big deal, and this was a game we really needed to win. Nation-wide, basketball is more or less considered equally important to college football. No really, it is.
When Alabama was enjoying a decent amount of success on the hardwood a few years back in the middle of Mark Gottfried's tenure, Auburn fans used that same football defense mechanism, but that's to be expected from them. The whole "we don't care about basketball" mantra is the biggest reason they can't recruit enough talent to be more than a thorn in the side of the league's better teams, and why they will finish this season as the SEC's worst team of the decade. I expect more from our fans though because we have never been ones to settle for mediocrity. We may not always fill every seat in our own gym, but you can count on at least 10,000-12,000 fans for each conference home game (which would more than sell out Auburn's arena), and I suspect the 15,000+ crowds to start picking up in frequency once again as we continue to rebuild. We are [slowly] laying the foundation of special things to come for our "other" major sports program. I'll be discussing the future of Alabama basketball at length once this season plays out. Right now though, I will say that we have the resources, in-state talent, and coach to be a championship program, but we as fans need to jump on board and commit ourselves to becoming the Florida of the next decade and avoid being the Auburn of the next decade at all costs.
Sorry for that little aside, but I just needed to get it off my chest. Besides, all we really need to say to Auburn is to remind them of the rematch in Tuscaloosa on March 6th. We'll decide once and for all who is this year's better basketball team then. That's all we need to worry about as far as they are concerned. In the meantime, they can enjoy what will probably be their biggest win of the year, and start thinking about what kind of Crimson Tide teams they will be facing in the years to come once Coach Grant's Process gets rolling along.
Getting back to the matter at hand, though, I will repeat that this loss Saturday on the court was devastating, and not just in the gut-wrenching way it happened. We suffered our second loss of the year to a team ranked below 100 in the RPI, which in all likelihood was a near deathblow for our NCAA hopes. More on that in the coming days. Although Auburn is not a good team, and this loss looks bad on paper, it really isn't all that unique or surprising in and of itself. For one, despite Alabama being the SEC's 5th best team of the past decade and Auburn being the 12th, they usually find a way to win when we come to town and they actually have fans show up. They went 7-3 against us at home in the decade, and even beat us the year we won the SEC championship in 2002. In other words, Auburn beating us at home isn't a shock, even when we are the better team. Second, Auburn is not that bad a team, especially at home. They gave both #1 Kentucky and #18 Ole Miss all they wanted and more this year at home, taking both teams down to the wire in the final minutes, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that we also found ourselves in a close game with them down the stretch.
What was a surprise though was the way in which we melted down in the final 20 seconds of the game. Despite all the things we did wrong to even get to that point, we were basically in position to win in the closing minute only to give it away with two baffling mistakes by our senior leader in the final 20 seconds. I can think of few worse ways to lose a game, especially with everything that player has gone through to even get the team to the point where we are now. That's all I have to say about the way the game ended. I would have had a lot more to say on Saturday, but that's why I waited a day and a half to write this.
As for how we got into that position of a close game in the first place, well, I have one word: turnovers. 19 of them precisely. Once again, we played almost perfectly on defense--the one costly lapse of focus on the inbounds play notwithstanding. We held one of the SEC's highest scoring teams to under 60 points. Where the turnovers come in, though, is the fact that Auburn might not have hit 40 if it weren't for the turnovers we gave up and especially the easy baskets they got off of them. Auburn had 21 points off turnovers, meaning they only had 37 otherwise. We've done a pretty good job of avoiding turnovers this year given our lack of perimeter ballhandlers, but this statistic from Saturday is simply unacceptable. Coach Jeff Lebo's defense is centered around causing turnovers in the halfcourt, but if we had simply done a better job taking care of the ball, especially near midcourt, we would have probably held Auburn to under 50 points and won this game by double digits.
Obviously, the other key to this loss was our lack of offensive production. This isn't new. We may be the best defensive team in the SEC, but along with LSU, we may also be the worst offensive team in the league, at least in terms of halfcourt offense. With another outstanding defensive performance, we only needed an average day offensively, and didn't get it. Not only did the offensive turnovers absolutely kill us, but we also needed more production out of pretty much all of our players individually. I could run down the list player-by-player, but at this point I think general statements are more appropriate. We need to be more persistent on offense. Teams by this point have scouted us and are prepared to take certain things away from us. When that happens, given our limited offensive options, we have to be prepared to keep going back until those things are there. Bottom line though, we need more production from our stars and more tenacity offensively from everyone else.
In the future, I'll continue to speak to individual player performances after each game, but for this one I just felt the need to talk more to my hatred of Auburn, our outlook on basketball as fans, and the team's general failures on Saturday.
Next up for the Tide is a home date with Florida on Thursday night. The good news is that we get extra time to prepare, and a big-name team like Florida provides us with a good opportunity to bounce back from this most disappointing loss.