The Crimson Tide basketball team will depart the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport in just a few hours for a flight to Gainesville, Florida. That flight will take them to not only a road meeting with the highly-ranked, two-time national championship-winning Florida Gators, but also to a meeting for the SEC Championship.
The winner of Tuesday night's showdown in Florida's O'Connell Center will guarantee itself a share of the SEC title, and a chance to win it outright with another win on Saturday. The loser could still potentially get a share of the title on Saturday, but would need a win and a loss from Tuesday night's winner.
The stakes literally do not get any higher for a regular season conference game. In fact, it is probably safe to say that this will be the biggest regular season Alabama basketball game in nine years--the last time the Tide played with a shot to clinch an SEC Championship. That game, incidentally, was also played against the Florida Gators as the two teams were battling for the 2002 title.
Bama entered this season with a roster short on top-end talent, shooters and depth. To make matters worse, the team struggled early in the season as the coaching staff and players had to learn to win despite those shortcomings. But then the miraculous happened: the Tide suddenly gelled in December and came into SEC play performing on a level at which a team with this many personnel deficiencies had no business performing. The result was an unbelievable 11-2 start to conference play that has put this team in this unthinkable position: one game away from winning the SEC Championship.
While one game away is a lot closer than even the most ardent wearers of crimson-colored glasses ever dreamed of being, the fact remains that the "one game" is possibly the most challenging one Bama will face all season. Florida is in the exact same position (one game away from winning the title), despite playing a tougher schedule than Alabama, for a reason. They have been the SEC's best team this year up to this point.
To win the championship on Tuesday night, Alabama will have to beat a team that is talking about getting a top-2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and do it on their home court. The Tide haven't won in the O'Connell Center since the Antonio McDyess-led 1995 team won there, a string of 7 straight losses in Gainesville. Further weakening Bama's hopes is the fact that the Tide simply haven't been playing at the same level the last four games that they had been before in their remarkable start to SEC play. Bama will need to reverse that trend in a big way to have a chance to win.
Just a little over a year ago, Bama found itself about to enter a game against a much-hyped Florida Gators team to decide the SEC Championship in that other major sport. In a pep talk in the tunnel before the game that was picked up by videographers, team captain Greg McElroy implored his teammates with a simple recipe for winning the championship: "Offense make plays. Defense shut 'em down."
Bama will be significant underdogs in this one. Despite playing such a tough opponent in such a tough environment, though, Bama can win this game if we do the two things that McElroy correctly identified as the keys to winning a championship. The offense must make plays; that means shooting well, finishing around the rim, protecting the ball and executing the game plan. A win in this game is absolutely out of the question if the offense doesn't make plays. The defense must shut 'em down: that means limiting open perimeter shots from the Gators' deadly shooters, rebounding, forcing turnovers and preventing easy points in the paint. Bama has relied on its stellar defense to get to this point, and that defense will be needed more than ever against Florida.
The rest of McElroy's talk applies as well.
Let's go be champions boys.