The Crimson Tide basketball team went to Oxford Saturday with a chance to take control of the SEC Championship race and move even closer to an NCAA at-large berth. Instead, thanks to generally lackluster play on the part of the Tide and a free throw parade for Ole Miss, Bama left Mississippi on Saturday now facing a much more daunting task in its quest for an SEC Championship and an NCAA Tournament bid.
The 68-63 road loss at the hands of the Ole Miss Rebels dropped the Tide to 19-9 overall on the season, and 11-3 in SEC play. Bama still controls its own destiny in the SEC race, but now likely needs to win at #13 Florida on Tuesday night to win the conference title. The Tide is also still alive as a bubble team, but the consensus among bracket experts is that Bama will need to go at least 2-1 in its next three games to even be strongly considered for a bid.
Despite the fact that this loss wasn't completely fatal, it nevertheless hurts. This was a very winnable road game played late in the season against a paltry crowd that provided minimal home court advantage for the home team. Furthermore, despite a shaky start, the Tide managed to build an 11-point lead midway through the second half, putting Bama in a great position to close out the game and leave town with what would have been a very solid road win over an RPI top 100 team. Instead, the Tide's dreams took a huge hit.
Many Bama fans (and I think it's safe to assume based on post-game comments, Coach Anthony Grant as well) are blaming this loss on the refereeing on display in Oxford Saturday. The stripes were blowing their whistle every time an Ole Miss player dribbled at a Bama defender, and although they were no doubt calling touch fouls on both ends, it was clear at the end of the day looking at the stats that the Rebels were the clear beneficiaries, particularly at the end of the game when things got tight.
The Rebels shot 34 free throws on the day, compared to only 16 for the Tide. From the line, Ole Miss outscored Bama 27-10 in what was despite that a one-point game in the final minute. To be clear, a huge foul discrepancy doesn't necessarily mean bad or unfair refereeing. It is often the case that one team is particularly adept at drawing fouls, or that the other team's defenders allow themselves to get beaten or taken out of position, resulting in more fouls. However, when considering that Ole Miss ranks 251st in the nation in free throw rate, well below average nationally, you have to question how they were able to get 34 free throws against the nation's 5th highest rated defense.
Refereeing aside, though, the real focus after this loss--at least for as long as there needs to be any focus on it at all, considering the immense stakes for Tuesday night's game--has to be on the Tide's lackluster performance for most of the game. Bama has come out looking tired and/or tight for four games in a row now, and was somewhat lucky to escape LSU on the road and fend off Arkansas at home, and was very lucky to survive Auburn at home. That luck ran out on Saturday when the Tide played a generally awful first half that allowed the Rebels to build a lead at the break. Needless to say, with the competition about to take a serious step up in Bama's next three games, that absolutely must change.
It's hard to say exactly what it is that has the Tide looking so shaky. Low post traps by opposing defenses are causing some of the problems, but aside from that I think it has to do with a couple of our go-to performers not playing at the same level that we enjoyed for much of the season.
You hate to pick on one player after a loss, especially a freshman, so let me begin by saying once again that Trevor Releford has been a godsend for this team, and had he not signed with Coach Grant back in November there's no telling where this team would be right now (certainly not in SEC Championship contention). Furthermore, Releford looks to have a bright future as Bama's floor general for hopefully years to come as he improves as a player. Partly because of how good he's been, though, he is in my opinion the team's most important player, and as such he has had some games recently where quite frankly he hasn't performed up to the standard that he set for himself with his mostly excellent play this year. On Saturday, he shot only 3 of 9 from the floor, but most tellingly he had no assists and committed 5 costly turnovers. The comparison has been made a million times, but point guards in college basketball are very much like quarterbacks in college football: their performance to a large extent dictates how effective the offense is, and that is the certainly the case with Releford and Alabama. If the Tide is to win some more big games in the next two weeks--something we must do in order to achieve either of our goals--Releford needs to perform at a high level each and every time out.
Another player who hasn't played at quite the same level the last two games is Tony Mitchell. After garnering SEC Player of the Week honors just a week ago, Mitchell saw his numbers drop off significantly in this week's two games. He still managed 13 points, 4 steals and 2 assists on Saturday, but he only grabbed 3 rebounds. That's where Mitchell has been at his most dangerous this season: on the glass; but he hasn't been crashing the boards as much the last few games and that's hurting his effectiveness a bit. Considering he is one of the team's mere three high-quality players, Bama won't be knocking off any high-quality opponents without him having some trademark stat-stuffing games like we've seen from him so many times this year.
On a positive note, a couple of Bama's senior role players/starters (an odd combination, but fitting in our case) gave good performances. Chris Hines had the best offensive game of his career, scoring 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting to go along with 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. Those were bonus points for Bama, and still they weren't enough. Charvez Davis finally hit a couple of much-needed 3's on the road, going 2-of-5 from beyond the arc. It wasn't a great shooting night, but it was adequate--a huge improvement relative to his other road performances. Hopefully he can regain his confidence and get hot in Gainesville's O'Connell Center and Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
JaMychal Green had what has become a very typical game for him. In fact he nearly pinpointed his average in every single category, tallying 17 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 assists while shooting 7-of-15 from the floor. He's finding ways to score each and every game, and that's great for this team. He's a lock for All-SEC, and has a great case to be first-team.
Andrew Steele, Senario Hillman, Ben Eblen and Charles Hankerson all came off the bench but totaled only 4 points between them. Grant seems to have found an effective playing rotation, but in order to maximize our chances of picking up some big wins these next two weeks, we need these guys to take advantage of their time on the court.
Fortunately, thanks to Florida's loss at Kentucky Saturday and a weaker-than-usual NCAA "bubble" this year, Bama's hopes are not dead despite letting this one slip away. The Tide still controls its own destiny, as Coach Grant and the players have been so fond of saying. Alabama is just one game away from clinching an SEC Championship, and possibly just two games away from earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament. All eyes will now turn to Gainesville, where one team will walk out of Florida's O'Connell Center on Tuesday night as 2011 SEC Champions.