After a disastrous collapse to end the regular season, the Alabama Crimson Tide (17-14, 8-10 SEC) enter conference championship week looking to salvage whatever it can from the wreckage of its 5 game losing streak. Prior to the season beginning, most Tide fans would have said that anything short of a top-6 finish in the SEC with an NCAA Tournament bid already wrapped up heading into the SEC Tournament would be a major disappointment. Well, as the 14 members of what ended up being arguably the best conference in college basketball this season descend upon the city of Saint Louis, Missouri (no, it still doesn’t make any sense that the conference tournament is being played there), Alabama finds itself slated to play in the noon game on Thursday after finishing 9th in the conference standings at 8-10. Disappointment doesn’t even come close to describing how many Tide fans are feeling.
Look, it’s easy to be negative right now. Alabama finished out a frustratingly inconsistent season by losing 5 straight games when even a single win would have likely sufficed for punching the Tide’s first ticket to dance since 2012. But believe it or not, the majority of brackets still have Alabama listed in the field of 68 (the second to last team in, actually), so most bracketologists think that, despite the horrific play to end the season and the bevy of losses, the Tide still have as much at stake as anyone in the country this week. Which, on its face, seems nearly impossible to believe. Alabama certainly hasn’t been playing like an NCAA Tournament team lately, but thanks to its top-10 SOS and plethora of wins over tournament teams (Auburn, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Florida, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Lipscomb), the Tide are still clinging to life.
Again, it’s hard to believe that a team with as many losses as Alabama has this season could possibly get an at-large spot in the NCAA Tournament. However, you don’t have to do much digging to find a comparable team that did exactly that. Last season, SEC-brethren Vanderbilt finished 19-15 and not only made the tournament field, but actually received a 9-seed. The Commodores were able to pull this off because the selection committee loved their top-10 SOS and collection of wins against fellow tournament teams. Sound familiar? Granted, Vanderbilt ended last season hot, winning 11 of their last 15 games, so the comparison isn’t perfect, but the selection committee has stated in recent years that they no longer consider how a team finished the season. It’s all about the overall resume.
Which brings us back around to this week’s SEC Tournament. The beautiful thing about the SEC suddenly becoming one of the top conferences in college hoops is that there are ample opportunities to turn things around. Alabama will tip things off on Thursday against 8th-seeded Texas A&M, who the Tide, of course, lost to 68-66 the other day. The 20-11 Aggies, also boasting a top-10 SOS, are considered by most to be a 7-seed in the field currently. So, despite losing 5 straight to end the season, Alabama is very much still square on the bubble, and opens up the SEC Tournament with a team currently slotted in the top half of the NCAA Tournament field. As hard as it is to believe, Alabama can very much play its way back into the big dance next week.
But will the Tide be able to?
Alabama and Texas A&M will begin the second day of play in Saint Louis at noon CST on the SEC Network. As these two teams just played each other in College Station this past Saturday, we pretty much know what to expect: these are both very talented teams who under-achieve on offense due to poor shooting and very few set plays, but typically make up for it by playing stout defense and using their athleticism to either rebound the hell out of the ball (A&M) or run the floor with explosive effectiveness (Alabama). A&M has one of the best front-courts in college basketball with big men like 1st Team All SEC center Tyler Davis and SEC Defensive Player of the Year power forward Robert Williams, but they lack outside scoring and are down to only one scholarship guard who can really run the point in true freshman T.J. Starks, who was last seen being ejected from the court after throwing a blind-side shove on Collin Sexton.
This is, without a doubt, a winnable game. A&M head coach Billy Kennedy isn’t exactly John Wooden, and Alabama very nearly went on the road and beat this team on Saturday without Herbert Jones, who remains a game-time decision for Thursday (though I’d lean towards him playing) as he recovers from a concussion suffered against Florida last week. The Tide need to pick up the pace. Alabama let the game last Saturday be decided in the half-court, which only played into the incredibly slow-tempo’d Aggies’ hands. A&M doesn’t have any depth at point guard, and they are really good on the defensive end of the court. Alabama needs to turn this game into a fast-paced, up-and-down the court affair. The Tide need to press this team often and try to score some easy baskets in the transition game off of turnovers.
Defensively, Alabama needs to continue packing the paint and denying the low block when they are in the half-court. Let A&M take shots from the perimeter, they aren’t very good at it. Admon Gilder is the only guy on the team who can consistently knock down shots from long-range. When the shot goes up, find a man and box-out. A&M got extra-possession after extra-possession on the offensive glass on Saturday, many of which were immediately converted into easy second-chance points by the aforementioned Davis and Williams. Rebounding is all about positioning and effort, and it’s not like Alabama lacks size themselves. The Tide can out-rebound this team.
Finally, something to keep an eye on will be the three-point shooting. A game featuring two teams that don’t shoot the ball well from beyond the arc, but have players capable of doing so, can often be decided by someone getting hot. John Petty, it would be nice for you to break out of that slump now.
If Alabama can defeat Texas A&M and advance to the quarterfinals on Friday, things could get wild. Not only would the Tide be feeling way better about itself and its tournament chances, but they would get to play top-seeded, hated rival Auburn in a rubber match on ESPN at noon CST. Things didn’t go so well for Alabama the last time these two met up in Auburn, but Alabama honestly matches up well with Auburn if the Tide can get their act back together. The Tigers simply aren’t the same team since starting big man Anfernee McLemore’s season ending injury a few weeks back. Since his injury, Auburn is 2-2, with both wins coming at home against the reeling Tide and 11th place South Carolina. This team is vulnerable right now.
With that being said, they are SEC co-champs for a reason. The offense has been deadly efficient, and they play pretty salty defense for a team as small as they are. Jared Harper has been dynamic at the point this season, and Bryce Brown can almost single-handedly take over a game when he is on. Mustapha Heron has been a beast on the wing on both ends of the court, the undersized Desean Murray can be a match-up nightmare because of his ability to play away from the basket, and Bruce Pearl has done a fantastic job getting this team to gel just right. They play a fun brand of basketball, and their guards are some of the best in the country.
If Alabama could somehow find a way to upset Auburn and get to the SEC semifinals, it’s honestly hard to imagine the selection committee leaving the Tide out of the NCAA Tournament. The Tide’s top-10 SOS will only improve, and another pair of wins over fellow tournament teams gives Alabama almost as many as anyone in the country. Granted, this scenario requires Avery Johnson’s team to play much better basketball than they have the last few weeks, but not any better than they’ve played at times this season. Alabama has, after all, already beaten both of these teams this year.
It’s officially time to put-up or shut-up for the Crimson Tide. Will they spend another season in the NIT? Or will they get up off of the mat and make some noise in Saint Louis, forcing the selection committee to choose them for the NCAA Tournament field?