On Saturday, February 23rd, 2002, Antoine Pettway laid in a game-winning basket to defeat a top ten Florida Gator team in front of a raucous crowd in Coleman Coliseum. A week later, the Tide were named SEC Champions. A week after that, the Tide battled the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the SEC Championship Game, falling just short of winning their 7th SEC Tournament Championship. Only Kentucky has won more.
On Saturday March 20th, 2004, Alabama stunned #1 Stanford in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, sending the Tide to their 8th Sweet Sixteen. The following weekend, the Tide knocked off Syracuse for their first ever appearance in the Elite Eight. That beautiful run was the 3rd of what ended up being 5 straight NCAA Tournament appearances for Alabama from 2002-2006.
That is Alabama basketball. It’s not the mediocre product that everyone scoffs at that cowers in the shadow of the dynastic football program it shares a University with, as has been the case for about a decade now. Don’t ever let anyone tell you differently. There is a reason why so many Tide Hoops fans were so angry and sour the last few weeks of the regular season. Those people aren’t bad fans, they just know that days like the last two in the SEC Tournament are what used to be the norm for Alabama basketball, which, despite the mediocrity of the past decade, is still inarguably one of the best basketball programs in the conference.
Collin Sexton’s game winner against A&M followed by the outright domination that was the second half of the beat-down of Auburn could end up being immortalized in crimson flame much like the moments highlighted at the beginning of this piece. Without any question, this Alabama basketball team will be dancing next weekend. The selection committee will not leave out a team with a top 10 SOS and nearly double-digit wins over fellow tournament teams, especially when said team is led by one of the best players in the country.
Sunday evening will be a sweet occasion. For many younger Tide fans, the one-off appearance in 2012 is the only time they’ve seen Alabama’s name called on Selection Sunday. When it happens again, savor it, and remember that this is Alabama basketball. Stomping on Auburn, winning exciting games with incredibly fun and talented players, and yes, playing on consecutive weekends in March. That is Alabama basketball, and it’s a beautiful sight to see it return.
But enough with the cloud-nine imagery of Crimson exploits both old and new. Because, Tide Hoops has another game to play. And it’s against an incredibly familiar foe: the Kentucky Wildcats.
There’s another common tradition that isn’t quite as glamorous as others that Alabama basketball boasts, and it’s one of inevitability: losing to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. Alabama has been eliminated from the SEC Tournament by Kentucky more times than Bruce Pearl has had illegal cookouts at his house. Since 2006, Kentucky has knocked Alabama out of the SEC Tournament 6 times, good enough for a 50% rate.
It’s only poetic that an SEC Tournament that has so beautifully captured the essence of Alabama’s past result in a semifinal showdown with the Wildcats. Can Alabama overcome history in this instance and make an appearance in the SEC Championship Game for the first time since that 2002 battle with State?
It’s not going to be easy. Kentucky throttled the Tide last month in Lexington by packing the paint and dominating the glass. Unfortunately for Alabama, it seems incredibly unlikely that Donta Hall will be able to play after sustaining what appeared to be a concussion late in the victory over Auburn. Galin Smith and Alex Reese are going to have to grow up fast if Alabama is to have any chance of hanging with the ‘Cats in the post. Realistically, the best Alabama can hope for in this area is keeping it somewhat competitive on the glass and getting some production around the rim on offense.
The more likely path to victory is one we saw employed against both A&M and Auburn at times: an incredibly athletic group getting up and down the court and making the open shots that come to them. Oh, and another herculean performance from one of the best to ever don crimson and white, Collin Sexton. Kentucky’s season pretty much turned around completely just in time for the Tide to come to Rupp Arena, but there have still been times where the Wildcats have looked like the team that lost 4 straight games going into that meeting. For one, they don’t have many great shooters. Alabama’s defense typically eats teams alive if they aren’t knocking down jump-shots (hello 2nd half Auburn!). They also are prone to lapses on the interior defensively, and that could be especially true since defensive stalwart Jared Vanderbilt likely won’t play today. If Alabama can make the Wildcats respect the perimeter game like Auburn had to in the 2nd half (hi again!), things really start to open up for Sexton, Dazon Ingram, and Braxton Key to start attacking the basket, without needing any picks that can take big bodies away from the glass. Oh, and cutting down on turnovers and making more free throws certainly wouldn’t hurt.
The past 48 hours have been special for Alabama basketball. The way this team has played at times, and the way the games have turned out, will ultimately be remembered fondly no matter the outcome of Saturday’s semifinal. But just imagine if this is only the beginning of another long-string of success for Alabama basketball. The Tide can beat anyone in the country when they bring their ‘A’ game, including Kentucky. Whether or not they will remains to be seen.
Either way, Alabama is more than likely going to be playing at least one more meaningful game next weekend. The rest of the SEC Tournament is all gravy.
The game will tip-off at noon CST and will once again be televised on ESPN.