The Crimson Tide basketball team has somehow navigated a treacherous suspension saga to emerge as one of the hottest teams in the SEC over the last couple of weeks. Fresh off big wins over Arkansas and Mississippi State last week, the Tide is now looking very good to land a coveted spot in this year's NCAA Tournament.
After spending a lot of time this weekend studying the numbers and the resumes of various "bubble" teams, and consulting with a few actual bracketologists like CBS's Jerry Palm and SI's Andy Glockner over Twitter, I can safely say that Alabama would be in the field with relative ease if the season were to end today.
That doesn't mean Alabama would have a very high seed, as I suspect that the bracket projections which will be released today and tomorrow from these experts will likely have the Tide in the 8/9 range or so, but even that seed range gives Bama a little breathing room, as at least a dozen or so other at-large teams will be projected in the field behind the Tide. However, even with that breathing room, Alabama is not 100% safe.
In order to say the Tide is a "lock", we need to ask ourselves, if Bama lost every single remaining game, would we still be safe? The answer, right now, is probably not. Losing out would have to begin by adding a home loss to an Auburn team ranked in the 140's of the RPI. That alone would be enough to knock Bama down a couple of seed lines at least. If that loss were then followed up by a road loss to an Ole Miss team that has a respectable RPI but is not an NCAA contender themselves, you'd have to think the Tide would be squarely on the bubble heading into the SEC Tournament next week.
Playing out this scenario a bit further, losing to Auburn and Ole Miss would leave Bama's most likely SEC Tournament seed as 5th, which would mean...a dangerous date with 12th seed South Carolina in the opening round. A loss to South Carolina--ranked in the 180's in the RPI--on a neutral floor in the last game of the season would be the mother of all bad losses for a bubble team and could very well knock the Tide out in the event the loss followed a horrible loss to Auburn and another loss to Ole Miss. Even if the Tide ended up as the 6th seed and faced 11th seed Georgia or Auburn, both ranked below 100 in the RPI, the same would likely hold were Bama to lose that SEC Tournament opener.
Now, the above scenario is literally worst-case, but nevertheless I think it suffices to say we can't quite call Alabama a "lock" just yet. So what would it take? Beating Auburn on Wednesday just might do it. A win, unfortunately, does almost nothing to improve the Tide's position, but avoiding the loss described above and the damage it could do would be enough to move Alabama very, very close to "lock" status. With a win in that game, the worst-case scenario would be a loss to Ole Miss followed by an opening-round SEC Tournament loss. More than likely, that resume would get Bama in--though just barely--thanks to very strong RPI and SOS numbers. However, if that tournament loss came to South Carolina, it might leave Bama fans at least a little nervous on Selection Sunday.
Which brings me to my next point: the importance of Alabama earning the opening-round bye in the SEC Tournament. Even with a loss at Ole Miss (following a win against Auburn), a 9-7 SEC record might just be enough to get Alabama a bye in the SEC Tournament, depending on what Tennessee and LSU do this week. In that scenario, Alabama is much safer as the 4th seed by having its opening SEC Tournament game be against the 5th seed (likely top 100 RPI teams Tennessee or LSU, assuming they were to beat South Carolina in their opener) in the 2nd round, rather than having to play 12th seed South Carolina in the 1st round. A loss to a team like Tennessee or LSU wouldn't do nearly the damage that a loss to a team like Georgia, Auburn, or especially South Carolina would do. Bottom line: cheer against Tennessee on Wednesday as they play LSU, and then cheer against both LSU and Tennessee on Saturday. If those teams lose, Alabama could avoid having to play a team like South Carolina in the SEC Tournament opener, which would make Bama much, much safer heading into the SEC Tournament if the Tide drops one or both games this week.
Enough of the negativity, though. What is the best-case scenario? In the regular season, that's easy: win both games this week. Do that, and we can all feel 100% assured that Alabama is indeed a "lock" before the SEC Tournament even begins. The Tide would have 21 wins against one of the highest-rated SOS in the country, would be 10-6 in one of the highest-rated conferences, and would have an RPI around 25th. Not only that, but Alabama would be almost guaranteed a bye in the SEC Tournament no matter what Tennessee and LSU do this week, and might possibly even catch Vanderbilt for the 3rd seed. At that point, the SEC Tournament would be about nothing but the Tide working to improve seeding position in the Big Dance.
Which brings me to the final point: Alabama's seeding ceiling (say that three times fast). In the truly best case scenario (wins this week followed by a run to the SEC Tournament final or even championship the following week) how high could the Tide climb in the seeding pecking order? That's very difficult to say, as it would depend heavily on what the teams ahead of Alabama do these next two weeks. However, it is very easy to see how Alabama could climb up to a 7 seed with a strong finish. Looking beyond that, though, it would be very difficult to crack into the top 6. An outright 5-0 finish these next two weeks might very well do it, but anything less would make it hard to see Alabama climbing that far, which is a shame, because to be perfectly honest, there really isn't much difference in a 7-10 seed, as you have to play a comparable opponent in the first round and then a top-two seed in the second round regardless. The real seed value comes in getting into the top 6 (or even falling down to 11 or possibly 12), where you can avoid playing those elite 1 and 2 seeds until at least the Sweet 16.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. There will be plenty of time to talk seeding if and when Alabama locks up its spot in the first place, something the Tide can do simply by avoiding bad losses these next two weeks. That task starts on Wednesday night, when the Tide can just about lock up its spot in the Big Dance by beating--or more precisely avoid losing to--Auburn.