After a pathetic performance in Fayetteville this past Saturday, the Alabama Crimson Tide (17-14, 8-10 SEC) come limping into Nashville for the SEC Tournament following an ugly three game losing steak. Why does that sound so familiar? Oh yeah, it’s exactly what happened last season. It’s honestly amazing that Avery Johnson was able to get the exact same result this year as he got out of last year’s squad, especially considering how inconsistent his past two Alabama teams have been over the course of their respective seasons.
Again, just like last year, the Tide’s backs are up against the wall, needing at least one win to have a shot at salvaging what was once a promising season. Unlike last season though, Alabama has a bit more ground to make up if they want to somehow squeak into the NCAA Tournament field. The Tide don’t boast the same amount of quality wins that they did a year ago, and their SOS is slightly less impressive. Also, Avery Johnson’s squad won’t have the luxury of playing a reeling top seeded team if they are able to get past their opening opponent on Thursday, as was the case in Saint Louis.
The other major difference in this year’s team is that it feels like these guys have quit. There’s no other way to explain the massive egg the Tide laid against Arkansas in the season finale. Avery has made multiple comments to the media recently stating that he’s looking for something to motivate this team. Is he serious with that? He can’t find something to motivate these guys? How about a potential NCAA Tournament berth? An exciting run in Nashville? A big win over a rival conference foe? How is it possible that this team, with literally everything outside of a championship to play for, is having trouble finding motivation?
Collin Sexton is one of the best players to come through Tuscaloosa in the history of the basketball program. The guy has been tearing it up recently for the Cleveland Cavaliers; he’s currently one of the only bright spots for that organization. Obviously, Alabama misses him for a bevy of tangible, on-the-court, reasons. But, clearly, this team desperately misses his competitive spirit as well. Sexton plays at 110% no matter what is on the line. He could be playing pick-up with his younger cousins and he’d be out there killing himself attacking the rim and talking smack.
There is just no killer instinct on this team. That’s part of the reason why they can’t close out games that damn near every other team in basketball could.
As I said in last year’s tournament preview: this is it. Everything is on the line for Alabama. If Avery can’t motivate these guys now, can he really be trusted to do so in the future? This year’s team is in almost an identical situation as last year, which, for the most part, isn’t a great thing. However, last year’s team was able to put their disappointing end to the season behind them and make a memorable run in the postseason. It will be a bit more difficult for this year’s club to do so, but it’s all still right there for the taking. It’s way past time for this team to wake up and take advantage.
The Tide will open up SEC Tournament play in the first game of the second session Thursday night. The game will tip at 6:00 PM CDT and the opponent will be the 7th-seeded Ole Miss Rebels (20-11, 10-8 SEC). Now, if Avery can get his group motivated in time for tip-off, this is actually a great match-up for Alabama, as evidenced by the Tide’s 74-53 blowout win over the Rebs in Tuscaloosa earlier this season.
This is, without a doubt, a winnable game. Alabama’s length and ability to rebound the basketball makes it really tough for the much smaller Rebels to hold up on the glass and find room for easy baskets on the offensive end. The Tide out-rebounded the Rebels 44-32 and held them to just 40.0% shooting from the field, with nine total blocks, in their previous meeting.
The path to victory for the Rebels likely follows a route where they force the Tide into a bunch of turnovers and get hot from downtown. With the way Alabama has taken care of the ball lately, it shouldn’t shock anybody if Ole Miss ends up with 15+ steals and 30+ points off of turnovers.
Ultimately, this game will come down to whichever team does the best job covering for their weaknesses and leveraging their strengths. When you have a match-up of teams that are built as differently as these two are, it’s all about dictating how the game progresses. If Alabama values their possessions, extends out defensively on the Rebels’ prolific guards (specifically Terence Davis and Breein Tyree), attacks the rim with confidence, and hits the glass the way they are capable of, the Tide could easily replicate their dominant performance over Ole Miss from almost two months back. However, if the Rebels turn Alabama over a bunch, get open space for their shooters, and hold their own in the rebounding category, it should be an easy win for the NCAA Tournament-bound Rebs.
If Alabama is able to sweep the Rebels and advance to the quarterfinals for the fourth straight season, the Tide would be going up against another opponent that they defeated at home earlier this year: the 4th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats (26-5, 13-3 SEC). In fact, the two home performances against Kentucky and Ole Miss were easily the best of the year for Avery’s group. Maybe there’s something to that.
Or maybe that’s just how those individual match-ups played out. Since being handed that conference opening loss to the Tide, John Calipari’s guys have responded by winning 13 out of their last 15 games, losing only to fellow top-ten teams LSU and Tennessee. While not as talented as some of Cal’s Kentucky teams of the past, these guys are playing like true national championship contenders. If Alabama can make it to Friday, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to beat these guys for a second time.
But, it wouldn’t be an SEC Tournament if the Tide didn’t head home following a loss to the Wildcats. Kentucky has eliminated Avery Johnson’s team from the conference tournament three straight years now, a streak that began in 2016 when 2nd-seeded Kentucky crushed the 10th-seeded Tide 85-59, a game that was made possible thanks to...wait for it...a win over 7th-seeded Ole Miss.
So yeah, if history once again repeats itself in 2019 (a win over Ole Miss followed by a loss to Kentucky), the Crimson Tide are going to be sweating it out on the bubble come Sunday when the Selection Show kicks off at 5:00 PM CDT. Which is a heck of a lot better than their current situation of being clearly a few spots out. That’s the beautiful thing about the SEC rising up to the top of the conference power rankings over the past couple of years, you get a lot of opportunities to prove yourself.
A win over a tournament-bound Ole Miss team on a neutral court would give the Tide another great looking bullet point to add to its resume, and a loss to a top-5 Kentucky team wouldn’t hurt ‘Bama at all.
Again, Alabama has just about everything to play for in Nashville this week. The Tide was able to put their late season slump behind them a year ago, and it ended up being a March to remember for this program. This year’s team is equally capable of making something happen.
Avery Johnson just needs to find that illusive motivation that this team somehow lacks.