On Saturday the Alabama basketball team traveled to Rupp Arena to play the likely 2015 national champion Kentucky Wildcats, one of the best teams in that program's storied history. Unsurprisingly, they were unable to keep up as Kentucky flexed its muscles to crush the undermanned Tide in expected fashion. At this point the Tide sits at 13-8 (3-5 SEC), leading many to conclude that an NCAA tournament berth is virtually out of the question. Let's examine where the team is, what they have left, and what they need to do to achieve this goal.
It has been another up and down season for Coach Grant, who reportedly came into the season on the hot seat following the program's first season with an overall losing record since 1998. Early in the season the Tide had a couple of opportunities to add resume-bolstering wins against Iowa State and especially Wichita State, but came up short in both contests. The team has refreshingly managed to avoid the terrible losses that have plagued the Grant tenure, however, with the worst loss on the season coming in Columbia to a South Carolina squad (2-6 SEC) that went on to drop four straight after beating Alabama before righting the ship to whip UGA yesterday. Alabama's other four conference losses came at the hands of teams who sit above them in the SEC race. If the Tide ends up just short this season, Coach Grant and the fans will likely look back to the missed opportunity caused by a listless first-half effort at home against Florida, as a win there would have put the team in much better position right now.
At this point, the Tide sits at 3-5 in SEC play with 10 games left. Realistically, a 10-8 conference record plus two SEC tourney wins gets the team in the conversation while 12-6 with at least one SEC tourney win almost ensures a spot in the field. This would obviously mean that the Tide can afford to finish no worse than 7-3 in these last ten games, which seems rather daunting. A cursory glance at the schedule, however, suggests that it may be more achievable than many would believe. Six of the ten games come against teams who are behind Alabama in the current SEC standings: vs. Missouri, at Mississippi State, vs. Vanderbilt, at Auburn, vs. South Carolina, and at Vanderbilt. No question about it, the Tide needs to play well enough to sweep these six games, dropping one at the most since any they lose here will have to be made up in the four more difficult contests. Avenging the South Carolina loss in reasonably convincing fashion could prove to be especially helpful in terms of swaying the selection committee.
That brings us to the four critical games that will decide the season: at LSU, vs. UGA, vs. Ole Miss, and at Texas A&M. Alabama blew out the Aggies 65-44 in the home SEC opener, and that margin looks strong since A&M went on to take Kentucky to double-overtime then reel off six straight wins to sit alone in second place at 15-5 (6-2). In fact, that is the closest thing to a signature win that Coach Grant's crew has on the schedule. As for the other three teams in that group, none have faced Alabama this season, nor have they shown any real consistency as all three sit tied at 5-3 in the SEC and have head-scratchers mixed in: UGA lost to an awful Georgia Tech squad and was taken to triple-overtime by Mercer, Ole Miss lost to Charleston Southern, and LSU dropped one to last-place Mizzou. This isn't intended to suggest that any of these teams should be easy marks, but none of them are unbeatable (read: Kentucky) by any stretch. In fact, nothing short of a split in these four should be considered acceptable.
Personally, I don't think much has changed in terms of season expectations. Based on the balance of the schedule, the Tide still has a great opportunity to finish in the top four in the SEC and earn a berth in the Big Dance, especially considering that four of the teams ahead of Alabama in the standings still have to play Kentucky with both UGA and Florida having to face them twice. In fact, Coach Grant, the players, and the administration should consider it a disappointment if the team fails to do so. Next up is one of the must-wins at home against Missouri on Wednesday night followed by a huge opportunity in Baton Rouge on Saturday. Here's hoping the team is able to find some semblance of a rhythm and close the season strong. All goals are still in front of them.