As the calendar turns from February to March, the days get longer, the weather becomes more pleasant, and basketball reaches it's peak-form. It's conference tournament week, and as this region of the world begins anew with the Spring bloom, as does the hopes of teams all across the country. Technically speaking, Alabama controls it's own destiny from here on out. The Crimson Tide will play until they lose, which is always a strong remedy for overcoming a disappointing regular season. Now make no mistake, Alabama is staring down the barrel of a fully loaded shotgun right now, as the team got arguably the toughest draw in the entire conference this week (how does Florida-Kentucky-LSU-Arkansas sound?). Things aren't exactly rosy for Anthony Grant and his team, but it's officially time for the 2014-15 Alabama Crimson Tide to put up or shut up.
Relevant Reading: Breakdown, Recap
Alabama will play an all-too familiar opponent in the opening game of action on Thursday, the 8th seeded Florida Gators (15-16, 8-10). Florida has experienced arguably the worst season under coach Billy Donovan since the 1997-98 season, his second one in Gainesville, when the Gators went 14-15 overall. If they don't make a run in either the SEC Tournament or in a potential NIT appearance, they will have their first losing season since then. However, much like Alabama, Florida has been in a lot of ball games; they just haven't been able to finish them off. The Gators also recently aided in Texas A&M's late season fade last week, downing the Aggies in a similar fashion as Alabama did. There are a lot of similarities between these two teams, and it's no surprise the first meeting came down to the wire, as Florida defeated Alabama 52-50 in Tuscaloosa back in January. The main difference between these two teams is Donovan. Anthony Grant's former mentor has absolutely dominated Grant since the two became conference foes back in the 2009-10 season. Donovan is a perfect 10-0 against his old protege, a mark that Grant will have to overcome if he hopes to keep his Crimson Tide playing this week.
- PG Kasey Hill (7.3 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.0 SPG)
- SG Eli Carter (8.7 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 2.0 APG)
- 3G Michael Frazier (12.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.3 SPG)
- PF Dorian Finney-Smith (13.1 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.9 BPG)
- C Jon Horford (6.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 0.9 BPG)
The biggest piece of news for the Gators is that Michael Frazier made his long-awaited return on Saturday against Kentucky after missing the previous seven games. Although he came off the bench and only played 18 minutes, it would be a bit surprising to see him left out of the starting line-up come Thursday afternoon. For a team that's really struggled to score this season, Frazier is a major difference maker (43.9% FG%, 40.3% 3P%, 87.7% FT%). His ability to stretch the floor also puts stress on the defense to stretch out and defend him, opening up other areas of the court. This will be especially important for the Gators against Alabama, who uses a lot of 2-3 match-up zone. The Tide will need to close out on Frazier early and often.
- G Chris Chiozza (4.0 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.3 SPG)
- G Jacob Kurtz (4.2 PPG, 3.7 RPG)
- F Alex Murphy (5.1 PPG, 1.9 RPG)
- F Devin Robinson (6.4 PPG, 2.9 RPG)
- F Chris Walker (4.9 PPG, 3.5 RPG)
What's at Stake?
Besides the obvious truth that a win keeps Alabama's season and (extremely slim) SEC Tournament Championship hopes alive, there are a couple of other pretty big stakes at hand for Alabama on Thursday. For one, a win against Florida would all but assure Alabama of a spot in the NIT, and could even push them up onto one of the higher seed lines. More importantly however, is Anthony Grant's lifeline as the head coach of the Crimson Tide. Another loss to Florida would make Grant 0/11 in his attempts to best Donovan, which would only make the noise threatening his job security even louder. A loss could also possibly cost the Tide their spot in the NIT, depending on how many at-large bids are available come Sunday.
Relevant Reading: Breakdown, Recap, Saxon's Florida-Kentucky Combo
If Grant can finally get over the hump and lead the Crimson Tide to a victory over the Gators, his reward will be having to play the unstoppable force that is the #1 Kentucky Wildcats (31-0, 18-0 SEC). There really is no way to sugarcoat this: Alabama has very little chance of winning this hypothetical match-up. A Crimson Tide victory would be arguably the biggest upset of the college basketball season, as the Wildcats are looking to become the first team since Bobby Knight's 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers to go undefeated on the year.
- PG Andrew Harrison (8.8 PPG, 2.2 APG, 3.8 RPG, 1.0 SPG)
- SG Aaron Harrison (11.2 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.4 SPG)
- SF Trey Lyles (8.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.2 APG)
- PF Karl-Anthony Towns (9.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.2 APG, 2.4 BPG)
- C Willie Cauley-Stein (8.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 0.9 APG, 1.4 SPG, 1.6 BPG)
- G Tyler Ulis (5.4 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 3.6 APG, 0.8 SPG)
- G Devin Booker (10.9 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 1.3 APG)
- F Marcus Lee (2.7 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 0.9 BPG)
- C Dakari Johnson (6.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 0.9 APG, 0.9 BPG)
The first thing to point out here is that Kentucky has unofficially moved on from the platoon system they were using for most of the season, due to injuries among other things. One major reason for this change is that Lyles is really the only true wing player on the roster for the Wildcats. The Harrison twins, Ulis, and Booker are all pure guards, and all four post players are basically centers at this level. If there is an area of weakness with this Kentucky team, it has to be on the wing. Not that it's much of a weakness, but if there is a chink in the armor at all then that is it.
However, let's not kid ourselves here. Kentucky is led by the SEC Coach of the Year (Calipari), Defensive Player of the Year (Cauley-Stein), Freshman of the Year (Towns), and Sixth Man of the Year (Booker). They had a bundle of 1st and 2nd Team All-SEC players, and nearly made up the entirety of the All-Freshman team. If Alabama can get by Florida on Thursday, they will be severely out-manned and out-gunned in the quarterfinals.
What's at Stake?
Absolute chaos. Human sacrifice, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria. Seriously though, this would be a pretty crazy scenario. Is a win over Kentucky enough to get Alabama back into tournament consideration? A pair of wins over Florida and Kentucky would probably move Bama back into the mid-50s in RPI, and would have the Tide at 20-13 overall. Ken Pomeroy, famous for his work in advanced statistics in college basketball, gives Alabama just over a 3% of making it to the semifinals. So yes, he's saying there is a chance.
Alabama got a seriously tough draw in this year's SEC Tournament. A win over Florida would be a first for Anthony Grant, and even that relatively historic accomplishment would only net Alabama a congratulatory game with the best team in college basketball. These are long odds, folks. However, you play until you lose, and Alabama will certainly do just that. As we learned over the past weekend, this team doesn't quit. Enjoy watching Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper participate in their last SEC Tournament, because the two of them have really put a ton of work into this program. If by some miracle Alabama finds a way to win both games on Thursday and Friday, there will obviously be another preview for the semifinals.
The Tide opens up the SEC Tournament with a 12:00 PM CST tip against Florida, which will be televised by the SEC Network.