Tide flattened as Gators win share of SEC title

At least two of the following three things had to happen for the Crimson Tide basketball team to upset the top-15 ranked Florida Gators on their home court with the SEC Championship at stake: Alabama had to play very well, Florida had to play poorly, and/or the Tide needed some luck.

In the first half, two of those three things did indeed happen. Florida played fairly poorly, at least in terms of shooting, missing 10 mostly wide open 3's, missing 6 free throw attempts, and shooting only 11 of 30 overall from the floor. Considering that the Tide was operating that half under an 8-2 deficit in offensive rebounds and an 11-6 deficit in turnovers and still somehow managed to tie the game before halftime, I think you have to say the luck was with Bama in that half as well.

Had those two factors carried over into the second half, it's possible Bama could have kept the game tight until the end and with that luck, managed to make a play or two at the end and win. The problem was, Florida's poor play and Bama's luck both completely turned around in the second half. The Gators committed 1 turnover the entire second half and shot an unreal 70% from the floor, including 6-of-9 from the arc. Suffice it to say that none of the three factors went Bama's way in a second half that saw the Tide outscored 48-21, the worst single-half performance of Anthony Grant's coaching career.

Despite Florida's play going from poor to extremely good over the course of the game, and whatever luck Bama had running out midway through the second half, one thing remained constant throughout the game: Alabama played extremely poorly. What is disheartening isn't so much that the Tide played poorly in its biggest, most hyped game in years. If that was it, you could chalk up the debacle the whole nation witnessed in the second half to a young team not used to success just getting tight or caught up in the moment.

But that's not it. The sad truth is that for several games now the Alabama team that we saw playing well above its head during a magical 11-2 start to SEC play has seemingly realized that they really shouldn't be that good. They'd be right, Alabama shouldn't be that good, but after sustaining such a high level of play for two months solid, everyone, myself included, assumed Bama could keep playing above its head until some elite team simply overwhelmed us at some point in the NCAA Tournament.

For over two weeks now, Bama has played much more like the team that couldn't beat even so-so teams like Oklahoma State and Providence back in early December than the team that dominated the SEC West, knocked off Kentucky, won at Tennessee, and came within one shot or a couple of bad calls (take your pick) away from stunning Vanderbilt in Memorial Fortress in January and early February. Luckily, Bama escaped with its life against lowly LSU and Auburn during the recent poor run of play, and found itself in tight games late against mediocre Arkansas and in what has turned out to be a devastating loss at mediocre Ole Miss. Bama was lucky to go 3-1 even against that far-from-stellar bunch during that stretch, and when the Tide finally faced a top-ranked opponent in a game that really mattered last night, those who thought the close results of the last two weeks were a mirage were rudely awakened.

If you don't believe me, here is a troubling statistic for you. The Pomeroy ratings, which I have cited numerous times on this blog for various reasons, is an excellent and widely praised tool for measuring team strength based not on wins and losses, but rather data collected for each possession throughout the season. By this point, when teams have each played 28-30 games, the ratings change very little just by adding the data for the 70 or so possessions in a game to the roughly 2,000 possessions already factored in. Even after a very bad or very good game, there is usually very little movement within the rankings this late in the season. A drop of 5 spots after one game by this point in the season is a huge drop, for example. Before traveling to play LSU two weeks ago, Bama was 33rd in the Pomeroy ratings. After just five games, the Tide has dropped to 51st, a massive drop considering the possessions of those games are weighted against the other 80+% of the season.

That's how bad the Tide has been relative to how good we were before that, but considering how much is still possible for this team, now is not the time to lament the drop in our level of play. Now is the time to try and raise our level of play once again, because, shockingly, after the extremely poor play at the start of the year and the relatively poor play the last few games, the Tide can still realistically both earn a share of the SEC Championship and also earn an NCAA at-large bid. If Alabama can regroup between now and Saturday and knock off likely NCAA-bound Georgia on Senior Day in Tuscaloosa, the Tide has a real chance to still share the SEC title and earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament, depending on what Florida does in Nashville on Saturday night and depending on what Bama does in Atlanta next week. Lose that game, however, and both dreams are completely dead, barring of course winning the entire SEC Tournament after what would be three straight losses to close the regular season.

Considering the Tide's tripping out of the gate to start the season, and the face-plant the whole nation witnessed last night, we should consider ourselves very lucky to be in this position. The only question now is, can Bama regroup after its string of bad performances and two disheartening losses in a row, and take advantage of it? We'll find out on Saturday.

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