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Points in the Paint: Contextualizing Alabama Basketball’s out-of-conference résumé

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You win some, but at what cost?

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

With the out-of-conference portion of Alabama basketball’s schedule having concluded, and the race for tourney berths heating up, now is as good a time as any to take a look at that schedule, assess it in context, and make some observations on the Tide’s postseason résumé.

First, here are the bakers dozen of games the Tide played outside of the SEC this year. I’ve included the NET and KenPom rankings for them, as well as the results.

NB: These rankings were as of Saturday morning, and have probably changed somewhat, though likely not substantially enough to change the overall analysis.

Team (Result) NET / KenPom

  • Penn (80-81 L) 179, 158
  • FAU (78-59 W) 196, 188
  • URI (93-79 L) 52, 59
  • Furman (81-73 W) 87, 76
  • UNC (76-67 L) 113, 97
  • Iowa State (104-89 L) 71, 65
  • So. Miss (83-68) 271, 253
  • SFA (78-68 W) 88, 117
  • Penn State (73-71 L) 29, 21
  • Samford (105-87 W) 301, 286
  • Belmont (92-72 W) 120, 103
  • Richmond (90-78 W) 54, 67
  • Kansas State (77-74) W) 89, 91

Worst OOC Wins: Q4 Samford, Q4 Southern Miss
Worst OOC Loss: Q3 Penn
Best OOC Win: Q2 Richmond
Best OOC Loss: Q1 Penn State, Q1 URI, Q2 Iowa State — at this rate, UNC may nudge up there by season’s end too.

The two things that jump out at you immediately are the lack of a marquee win and some real stinkers (both wins and one notable loss.) Alabama is 4-4 against NET 100 teams — including wins over nice midmajors like Furman and SFA. But, of those, only the Richmond win has panned out to be a particularly good one. There is some hope that Belmont and K State have finally turned the corner. And, in the case of the Wildcats, it is hoped that KSU can do some damage in the Big 12. Weber’s group blew out No. 13 West Virginia and gave Alabama all it could handle, so look for the ‘Cats to hopefully move into the 75ish range and be another Q2 win. And, if Belmont can win the OVC tourney to be an AQ, that is another win over a tournament-bound team. At the very least, a 20-point thumping of a decent name brand making some sort of postseason appearance always helps.

There is a bad loss though. Fortunately, there’s just the one, which itself is a marked improvement over years past. This team is winning the games it ought to win (have I reminded you lately that I would take a bullet for Nate Oats?) Unfortunately, that loss doesn't even have the decency to be buried in the middle of the schedule. It was Alabama’s first game of the year, and it sticks out at you like the coffee table you keep banging your knee into. As I said in the comments of the recap of the Penn game, if Alabama finds itself on the outside looking-in come March, it is apt to be that one game more than any that dooms the Tide. That has turned out to be prescient. The Quakers were not a good team, and they have only gotten worse as the season wears on. If that game is played at any point over the next two months, Alabama wins 95 times out of 100 and doesn’t break a sweat doing it. But, it was the first game. And despite a new staff, a rash of season-ending injuries, a ton of new faces, and a new scheme, you doubt the committee will take into account the full context for that Penn loss.

However, what appeared to be a bad-ish loss at the time is actually shaping up to not be so detrimental. Owing to the strength of the Big 12, Iowa State is working on a very bubblish résumé now. As March approaches, dropping that neutral floor game to a surging Q2 team isn’t particularly devastating. Similarly, you can’t count out UNC to put together some wins down the stretch and get into the tourney discussion. If you will recall, UNC won that game with a healthy Cole Anthony. The Tarheels are on a 2-game winning streak in the nation’s toughest conference and just hit the .500 mark last night with a win over NC State (NET 50.) Like Kansas State, Iowa State, and others, this is a team that could help Alabama’s fortunes with some late-season winning

Likewise, there are two unequivocally “good losses” on the schedule, and they were both true road games: Rhode Island and Penn State. The Penn State Nittany Lions in particular don't get nearly the respect they deserve. PSU is 10-1 on its home floor, and has absolutely blown out some very good ranked teams and quality teams in Happy Valley. Their NET and KenPom rankings aren’t an accident. Alabama had a chance to spring the upset in a true road game there. That is a quality Q1 loss. So too is the loss to URI a good one, though you do wish ‘Bama had been a bit more competitive. The Rams dismantled the Tide from the opening tip and to-date is probably the only game of the season where Alabama truly got its butt whipped in all phases for 40 full minutes.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

On the other side of the ledger is the bad win — one that hurts more than helps; the scheduled win the Tide had against Samford. The Bulldogs have had two winning seasons in the last fifteen years — and one of those was a 17-16 record. Sure, the SoCon is competitive (Furman, Wofford, UNC-G, etc.) — even so, Samford is 8th in that 10-team league. It should come as little surprise then that their NET/KenPom rankings are south of 300. For another year. And that Q4 win significantly dropped the Tide’s OOC SOS. I understand that the administration is trying to sell season tickets, but the traveling roadshow has done the Tide more harm than good the last five years — even when Alabama posts the W. Mercifully, they at least have stopped scheduling the marquee home game away from Coleman Coliseum (Oregon, Texas, Clemson etc.)

Scheduling with the knowledge that the Tide might just face Southern Miss in Atlantis can be somewhat forgiven. You take the chance that Bama loses to Gonzaga or Michigan — not the Golden Eagles. Besides, just last season the Golden Eagles were a 20-game winner, and they have gone to post-season play five of the last nine years. Unlike Samford, when this one was scheduled, I don’t think anyone quite foresaw such a precipitous drop-off in Hattiesburg — with USM now sitting at 6-15 on the year and an SOS-dragging NET near 300.

When the holistic schedule is viewed, the Tide’s OOC doesn’t appear very daunting — average team NET of 127, plenty of quality names, and a few big boys. But, when you omit just the Samford game, that raises to a NET of 112 — and without Southern Miss, the Tide’s average opponent sits inside the Top 100 (98). In KenPom rankings, the schedule looks even better: the average opponent is ranked 121 with the bodybags included, 110 without Samford, and rises all the way to 94 without Samford and So. Miss.

And, that takes us to the adjusted SOS, which now stands at 53rd. In a vacuum, that looks pretty good, and it is next to other P5 teams (It is the 4th-toughest one of all the major conference teams, per KenPom opponent-adjusted efficiency.) But, it’s only good to the extent that the Tide can win them. Alabama came out of the gate very slowly, and has tallied just an 8-5 record. And, it is ironically the weaker early portion of the OOC schedule that may put Alabama in a direct competitive disadvantage against other teams fighting for the last few berths: Florida (NET 37, SOS 30th) and Oklahoma (NET 45, SOS 36th) immediately come to mind.

TL; DR Version:

Alabama presently sits at 43rd in the NET rankings, and is firmly in the discussion for an NCAA Tournament appearance. Part of that is the result of a solid winning streak, including some games against quality teams. And part of it is an improvement in out of conference play. The Tide went 3-4 in November, but has gone 5-1 since then, with its lone OOC loss being by a basket to Q1 Penn State.

But, the lack of a marquee wins against non-SEC foes, combined with the two deadweight games on the bottom end of the schedule, means that Alabama has little margin of error.

Qualitatively, this matters given Alabama’s recent lack of success in the postseason that weighs against it. Since that great season where the Tide made the Elite 8, it has gone 2-4 in NCAA Tourneys under three different coaches, including three one-and-done berths. It has not made it out of the first weekend in over 15 years. And, in its last four NIT appearances under Grant and Johnson, the Tide failed to win a single game.

If this team is to make the Tournament (and I devoutly believe it can), then the real heavy lifting will have to be done over the next six weeks in February and March SEC play. Nate Oats’ crew is in pretty good shape, but it can’t afford more than one marginal loss to another below average squad. And, the Tide could really use some wins over tourney teams down the stretch. Doubly so would it help to pick up a few of those on the road and in Nashville; that would go a long way towards dispelling notions that this is the Same Ole’ Alabama.