The Crimson Tide basketball overcame a lot on Wednesday night against a vastly inferior Auburn team that had its sights set on killing Bama's dream season dead on the spot with their toxic RPI. The Tide had to overcome by far its worst shooting performance of the season, a bizarre yet effective strategy deployed by Auburn coach Tony Barbee, miserable execution on offense that led to 19 turnovers, a 41-29 deficit late in the second half, and seemingly the bad karma generated by Harvey Updyke.
But, despite the additional gray hairs and reduced life expectancy for Bama fans, and the burning sensation in the eyes of basketball lovers everywhere who were unfortunate enough to watch that abomination, overcome is exactly what the Tide did. Thanks to a 22-8 run to close the game over the final 9 minutes and a dramatic tip-in by JaMychal Green, Bama survived what would have been the most devastating regular season loss in perhaps decades, and instead completed a satisfying season sweep of the hated Auburn Tigers for the 2011 season.
First, credit must go where credit is due. For all of Bama fans' lamenting about our lack of talent compared to the other top teams in the SEC, Auburn brought a squad into Coleman Coliseum that consisted of one player (Earnest Ross) who would play major minutes for Bama, and possibly one more (Kenny Gabriel) who would ever see the floor on our team--and that's our team, with all its talent deficiencies. I've said it many times in the weekly SEC Power Poll piece, but you have to be impressed with how competitive Barbee has made possibly the least talented team ever in the modern era of SEC basketball. Furthermore, he deployed a crazy-yet-genius strategy on Wednesday night, and his players took on his brazen, nothing-to-lose attitude and bought into the strategy 100%. Barbee had his zone defense completely collapse and double- if not triple-team Green, Mitchell and Releford any time any one of them touched the ball inside the 3-point line. The strategy resulted in 40 Bama free throw attempts and 4 Auburn starters fouled out, but it also resulted in holding Bama to 51 points and gave Auburn a great chance to pull off the biggest upset in the SEC this year.
Second, there's no sugar-coating the egg that Bama laid. It was the Tide's worst performance of the season--Paradise Jam included. The Bama players didn't come prepared for the physical battle that Auburn brought, and the Bama coaches had absolutely no answer for Barbee's unusual defense. Green admitted after the game that the team probably overlooked Auburn a little bit, and in all fairness the coaching staff probably did too. Although much of the credit has to go to the bizzare Auburn defense and their tactics for the following numbers, they're nevertheless a big indication of just how poor Alabama's execution and response was on the offensive end: 11 made shots, 19 turnovers. Every season there are almost 6,000 Division I basketball games. I would love to know how many times a team has ever won a game with a made shot/turnover ratio that low. I would be surprised if a single team this season has done it.
Bama's close brush with death was a brutal reminder to us all that, despite our excellent results thus far in SEC play, we still have some glaring deficiencies and if we take a night off, we can lose to anyone, including the Auburn Tigers and the St. Peter's Peacocks. Due to Auburn's collapsing defense, Bama guards had wide open looks from the arc all night, and not only did we only hit 2, but in perhaps an even bigger sign of our inability to shoot, we only attempted 7 despite all the looks. Some fans expressed concern that Auburn gave everyone else the blueprint to beat us. I don't necessarily agree, but I will say that we need to be better prepared to attack a collapsing zone in the future.
It was a sloppy, ugly performance by the Tide, but let's not be too negative here. After all, we found a way to win despite everything else, and credit has to go to the players, coaches and especially the 15,383 fans in Coleman Coliseum for believing and staying in it right to the very end. The crowd and players were clearly antsy for the first 31 minutes or so, but in the last 9+ minutes Bama's players focused in and finally started executing like they should have been all game. The crowd came to life and was on its feet virtually every defensive possession in those final minutes, and Auburn, largely playing without their fouled-out top players, collapsed under the pressure. After spending an unbelievably frustrating season last year watching a team that just didn't believe they could win despite being pretty competitive overall, we are now watching a team that truly believes they can win every game, no matter who it is or how we play.
Individually, it's hard to find highlights in this one. MVP has to be Green, who led all scorers with 17 points and of course hit the game-winner. He also added 4 blocks and 2 steals. Green was a mere 2-of-8 from the floor before hitting his final shot, but the best thing he did on offense was keep his motor running despite the wreckage around him and the outright harassment of Tony Barbee's defense. They don't keep stats for this, but I'm guessing Green drew at least a dozen fouls during the course of the game. That was ultimately huge, because without the drawing fouls at the rate we did, there's no way Bama wins this one. Again, I've said it a million times, but Green has learned to finally play hard on every single possession, and it's paying huge dividends for him, especially on nights when his shots aren't falling.
Another player who stood out was Charles Hankerson. Grant continues to give him opportunities off the bench, especially in the first half of games. This time he played 8 minutes in the first half and was actually a big part of a 12-2 Bama run in that half that kept the Tide in it at halftime. He also hit a big trey late in the half to help stop an Auburn run. Given Hankerson's gaudy high school stats, it's been a little disappointing that he hasn't contributed much this year as a freshman scoring-wise, but I have a hypothesis about that. Hankerson put on about 30 pounds of mostly muscle after his senior year in high school despite having already filled out. He was huge when he came in over the summer--too huge, according to my hypothesis. Hankerson has some nice upside clearly, but he has just looked too slow and too stiff, especially compared to his very impressive high school film. It's hard to tell for sure, but it certainly looks like the coaching staff has Hankerson slimming down significantly now, even just over the course of the season, and I think once he slims down even more in the off-season he'll be ready to contribute even more next season. Just a hypothesis, though.
Chris Hines played his role pretty well, adding 6 points and 9 rebounds, and actually going 4-for-4 from the free throw line. He also had 2 blocks.
Andrew Steele didn't start, but he played the majority of the game yet again. Steele had a solid game, doing some excellent defensive work in the full-court press and adding 7 points and 7 rebounds. No question Steele is a player who can raise the team's level of play by doing all the little things well.
Tony Mitchell contributed only 8 points on only 1-of-7 shooting. Auburn's collapsing defense just didn't allow him to get to the rim at all. They effectively took the reigning SEC Player of the Week out of the game, at least as much as possible.
If they took Mitchell out of the game, then they made it seem like Trevor Releford never even showed up at all. Releford managed only 4 points on 1-of-4 shooting, and had 0 assists and 4 turnovers. He even missed a crucial free throw that may have iced the game in the final minute. Releford has been a godsend for this team, make no mistake about it, but he had nothing to offer in terms of breaking down Auburn's defense. Here's to a big bounce-back from him on Saturday in Oxford.
Charvez Davis was a miserable 0-for-7 in this one, on a night when Bama has never needed his outside shooting more. Davis continues to play hard, but for whatever reason he just seems to have lost his mojo on the offensive end. He only has a few games left in his career to find it.
Senario Hillman only played 12 minutes, continuing his reduction in minutes over the last several games. He did hit a big trey as the shot clock was expiring in the first half, but was largely invisible aside from that. Ben Eblen played 7 minutes in relief of Releford, committing 1 turnover with no assists.
It was ugly, but it was a win. In college basketball, margin of victory means nothing, so Bama's SEC Championship and NCAA Tournament hopes are still fully intact. There are no more easy games, though. Bama will close with three very difficult tests before traveling to Atlanta for the SEC Tournament, where yet another difficult test surely awaits. Bama stared death in the eye last night and lived to tell about it. Now is the time to learn from it and improve, because this team has a lot of work to do--and a lot of rewards to reap if they succeed.