The Crimson Tide basketball team will face the #2 Kentucky Wildcats on Friday afternoon in the second round of the SEC Tournament in Nashville's Bridgestone Arena. The Tide is not only looking for a major upset to stay alive in the SEC Tournament, but also a signature win to secure a spot in the NIT.
This will be the opening game on Friday, so tip-off is set for noon local time. The game, like all of the tournament games on Friday, will be televised throughout the Southeast on the SEC Network. Those outside the region can watch this and all other SEC Tournament action online at ESPN360.
Bama is coming off an emotional win on Thrusday over South Carolina in which they overcame an 18-point deficit in the final 12 minutes of the game, a nice role-reversal for a team accustomed to letting its own double-digit leads slip away in the final period. The win improved the Tide to 17-14 on the season and improved the team's standing on the NIT bubble. If the season ended today, Bama would have a good shot at getting an at-large berth to the NIT, but as more and more mid-majors steal automatic bids, Bama may very well need another big win to move into contention for an NIT berth. What the Tide wants more than anything else, though, is to stay alive in Nashville with a memorable win over the #2 team in the nation to keep its NCAA automatic bid hopes alive.
Kentucky meanwhile will bring a #2 national ranking in both polls to Nashville along with hopes for a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Most experts agree that the Cats are a lock for a #1 seed even if they were to lose their opening game of the SEC tournament against Alabama, but coach John Calipari is telling his team that they need to win on Friday to keep their hopes for a #1 seed alive. I think this is simply a motivational tool for him to make sure that his team doesn't come out flat against the Tide. Kentucky received a bye into the second round as the #1 seed from the SEC East. The Cats won their 43rd SEC championship this season after going 14-2 in the league en route to amassing a 29-2 overall record.
Kentucky won the two teams' only previous meeting back in February at home in Rupp Arena by a score of 66-55. The Tide jumped out to an early lead and kept the Kentucky offense frustrated for most of the day, but a poor shooting night--particularly a series of point-blank missed shots-- allowed Kentucky to build up an 11-point lead early in the second half. Bama battled back to pull the game to within six points on two occasions late in the game but could get no closer.
Since we already did an extensive joint preview with Kentucky blog A Sea of Blue, I will direct you to those previews just below. You can also check out my post-game analysis from our previous matchup with the Cats to see how we matched up with them a month ago in Lexington.
I encourage everyone to look back at Part II of the pre-game Q&A piece from February, especially the next-to-last question in which I explain what it would take to win at Rupp. Although this game will technically take place on a neutral court, in reality it will be anything but, and everyone knows it. I went to the Alabama-Kentucky game myself the last time the SEC tournament was played in Nashville. Of the 20,000 seats in the arena, about 17,500 were filled with Kentucky fans, and most of the rest were filled with neutral fans. This will look, sound, and feel like a game in Rupp Arena, so the challenge is essentially the same.
A win on Friday afternoon would be big for so many reasons and on so many levels. Even with a loss, though, we can leave Nashville with our heads held high knowing that we went down on a high note. A loss may or may not mean the end of our season (if we do lose, we'll have coverage on the NIT bubble race), so we have to leave everything on the floor. Against South Carolina, we got away with playing with passion for only about 20 minutes of the game. Anything less than 40 minutes of hard-nosed, focused intensity against the Cats will not get it done. We need to step off the bus with our game face on and not take it off until the buzzer sounds. Play hard. Play with passion. Roll Tide.