Were you dispirited by the blown lead to Florida? Dropping that Penn game at home? Getting beaten by the worst UNC team in over a decade? Another cold-shooting afternoon in Rupp? Losing a roadie to pedestrian Penn State? Getting blown off the floor by a very mediocre Iowa State team?
It’s understandable if you’re gunshy at this point. And those losses above? They bore all the hallmarks of Same Ole’ Alabama.
For the better part of a decade, Alabama hoops fans have been Charlie Brown trying to kick the football — entering seasons and coaching changes with so much exuberant hope only to watch a predictable, painful faceplant time and time again.
But, what if I told you that this wasn’t the same ole’ Alabama? That the Crimson Tide have found different ways to win season-long? That it is an exciting, fun team that busts its butt for 40 minutes? That the years of defensive bugaboos — even ones notable in November — seem to be correcting course? That the Tide can actually play tempo and knock down perimeter shots? That ballhandlers don’t look helpless in the face of a press? That the Tide looks to force a transition game?
That this Alabama team, hindered by injuries season-long — this island of misfit toys, is very much alive and well for the NCAA tournament? Indeed, if advanced stats are any indication, a berth to the Dance is more likely than not?
Because all of those things are true.
Alabama has become an exceptionally tough out following the Christmas break. Last night’s defensive meisterwerk was simply the crown jewel in a month-long improvement for the Tide. Following the Iowa State rout, the Tide absolutely destroyed two bad teams as it ought to have, picked up three Top 100 wins, and then smothered the No. 4 Auburn Tigers.
That quiet body of work is paying off too. And, that it is being done against such a brutal slate is only helping the Tide.
The schedule has not been forgiving for this mismatched, injured team with a first-year coach: The 9-7 Crimson Tide have now moved all the way up to No. 44 in the KenPom rankings. Part of that involves facing the nation’s 19th-ranked SOS. And, this despite losing 17 man-games to injury, being without Rojas, and having Jahvon Quinerly sidelined by the NCAA. The Tide have played well in Coleman (6-1), and have netted a .500 road record (2-2). They have done all of this while being — quite literally — one of the the unluckiest teams in the nation (No. 337).
In other words, what is happening on the court isn’t an accident: It’s hard work paying off, a team buying-in and getting conditioned, a system that forces its style of play, and a coach doing all he can to make some equally-gunshy players believe that they can win.
Nor is it just KenPom’s advanced metrics and spreadsheets that have noted the quietly surging Tide. Like KenPom, the Tide have moved from 58th all the way to 44th in the NCAA’s NET rankings. With another half-season of heavy lifting remaining on the schedule, the Crimson Tide are projected to finish the year 18-13 — earning a 9-seed (the 35th overall seed), and boast a remarkable 78% chance of making the NCAA Tournament.
Hold up, you’d suggest — aren’t we being irrationally excited about the Auburn win? Sure, if this were just about housing the ‘Barn in Coleman. But, it’s not — it’s the steady improvement, it’s the versatility, it’s the different ways that Alabama is winning. For a team that had problems winning at all, having a coach that can find multiple ways to do so is a godsend to our long-suffering fanbase.
So, don’t let those dancing shoes get too dusty. The Crimson Tide may very well be the Cinderella in three months — ask John Calipari if he wants to see Nate Oats again in 2020.
This is not the Same Ole’ Alabama.
I’m not saying I’d give my firstborn to Nate Oats, but I’m not denying it either.