The 2015-16 regular season is now officially in the books.
It was a season that history will likely look kindly upon amongst the Alabama faithful, as First Team All-SEC member Retin Obasohan led the Crimson Tide to the verge of an unlikely NCAA Tournament berth, only to fall short due to a late-season slide. Not a bad way to begin the Avery Johnson era by any stretch. No matter how things play out in March, Avery Johnson's first year brought a number of exciting events for Alabama basketball. This year's team reversed a number of negative trends by finally finding ways to win close games, winning some big games away from the friendly confines of Coleman Coliseum, and, at long last, beating Florida.
Another negative trend that the program has developed over the last decade or so is really poor showings in the SEC Tournament. The Crimson Tide claim the second-most SEC Tournament Championships in the league, yet they haven't won one since 1991.
The most recent forays have been the some of the worst. Anthony Grant went 4-6 during his tenure in Tuscaloosa, only ever making it past the quarterfinals in 2011 and 2013. The Tide even struggled in this event in Mark Gottfried's years as the Crimson Tide coach, as the last semifinal appearance prior to 2011 came in 2005. Clearly, this is an area Alabama fans would like to see some improvement.
The 2016 SEC Tournament should be a fun one, as there are a number of teams that could all make some noise. The middle of the conference has a ton of parity, which should make for some excitement. Alabama finished the SEC slate as the 10-seed in the tourney, and as such, they will be taking on the 7th-seeded Ole Miss Rebels (20-11, 10-8 SEC) in the opening game. If they can pull out a victory in that match-up, they will then have to take on the Goliath that is 2nd-seed Kentucky (23-8, 13-5 SEC), a team that Alabama has not been able to hang with all season.
While Tennessee clobbered Auburn in the pity-party "first round" of the SEC Tournament Wednesday night, the real action begins on Thursday. There will be a full slate of games on the SEC Network beginning at noon CST with the Florida Gators battling against the Arkansas Razorbacks. Alabama will tip-off with Ole Miss at approximately 6:00 PM CST, barring some sort of crazy quadruple-overtime afternoon game.
Three Keys to Victory
It's fitting that Alabama will play Ole Miss in the opener in Nashville, because the two met back in the beginning of January for Alabama's SEC opener as well. The Rebels ultimately won that game in Oxford 74-66 after Alabama's offense stalled out and the team blew a 40-32 halftime lead. While Alabama's second half struggles from the field certainly didn't help matters, the Tide lost that game because they failed to execute in a number of key areas.
For one, the Rebels couldn't buy a jumpshot, yet Alabama allowed Ole Miss to consistently get into the paint and make the Tide pay around the rim. The Tide actually did follow the first key from last game pretty well for the most part, frustrating First Team All-SEC guard Stefan Moody most of the night. Moody shot 3/9 from the field and turned the ball over six times, but he also got to the line a ridiculous 16 times, knocking down 13 of them on his way to 21 points. Nearly every one of those free throw attempts came from him attacking the rim. Alabama has to force Moody into contested jump shots, because the guy is really good at drawing fouls and deadly efficient from the charity stripe (83.3%).
Sebastian Siaz, the junior post player, absolutely killed the Tide inside all night. The Madrid product dropped 21 points on his own on 8/13 from the floor and added an insane 16(!) rebounds. That simply cannot happen again if Alabama wants to win the rematch in Nashville. Fortunately, Donta Hall has really progressed as a player since that first meeting (in which he only got eight minutes of playing time), and his rebounding and blocking has been incredible for the Tide as of late. He will be a huge key to this game. If Alabama can limit Moody and Saiz, there really isn't a whole lot else that Ole Miss can throw at the Tide defense.
Offensively, someone else has to step up for the Crimson Tide. The 'Bama offense has become the Retin Obasohan show in recent weeks. Arthur Edwards had a great performance againt the Rebels in Oxford, going 5/6 from beyond the arc and finishing with 17 points. It's going to take a similar performance from someone other than Obasohan if Alabama wants to play another day in Nashville. It also wouldn't hurt if Alabama doesn't turn the ball over 19 times again.
If Alabama can defeat Ole Miss, they will advance to the quarterfinals for a lovely third and final bout with the Kentucky Wildcats, once again at 6:00 PM CST on the SEC Network. Coincidentally, the Crimson Tide also played Kentucky the game after Ole Miss, and on a similar short rest, earlier this season. That game didn't go so well for Alabama. Neither did the subsequent rematch in Lexington.
Three Keys to Victory
We aren't much into pumping sunshine around here in regards to 'Bama hoops, so here it is: it would take Alabama's absolute best performance to beat Kentucky on Friday, should they get the, well, privilege to play them. This Kentucky team has flaws: the front-court isn't up to its usual caliber on either end, they still don't make a ton of jumpshots as a team (though SEC Player of the Year Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray have been playing at another level recently), and they don't shoot free throws well. But none of that has seemed to matter in their previous meetings with Alabama, so it's hard to see a path to victory in a potential date with the Wildcats.
Alabama will have to crash the boards like crazy if they want to win a hypothetical contest with Kentucky. Obasohan will have to be superman again like he was in Lexington, and mulitple other contributors will have to be on their 'A' game shooting-wise.
Realistically, it's very difficult to see Alabama playing on into the weekend in Nashville. If the team can somehow stun Kentucky, there will be a follow-up post for this one up on Saturday for the SEC semis. Let's hope that we've got at least one more article left to write before the NIT.
Here is your bracket and schedule for the Tournament action. Feel free to use this one as your tourney open thread for today
All Times Eastern
No. 8 Florida vs. No. 9 Arkansas (1 p.m., SEC Network)
No. 5 Vanderbilt vs. No. 12 Tennessee (3 p.m., SEC Network)
No. 7 Ole Miss vs. No. 10 Alabama (7 p.m., SEC Network)
No. 6 Georgia vs. No. 11 Mississippi State (9 p.m., SEC Network)