With Alabama’s loss to Vanderbilt this past Tuesday, the Crimson Tide were all but eliminated from the race for the final few at-large bids for the 2020 NCAA Tournament. It’s a familiar story, unfortunately, for Tide Hoops fans, but, once again, the Tide will likely need an incredible run in the SEC Tournament next week in Nashville in order to return to the big stages of the Big Dance.
Obviously, cutting down the nets in Nashville will land the Tide an automatic invitation from the NCAA Tournament selection committee. But could an appearance in the SEC Championship Game be enough to garner consideration for an at-large spot? Alabama will be either the 9th or 10th seed in the field, depending on how things play out in the final day of the regular season today. How would either path to the title game play out? Well, it’s a bit complicated right now, as the current SEC standings are extremely close for a number of different spots. But there are a couple of solid known variables that we can examine to determine what our assumptions should be.
The 9th Seed
Assuming that Alabama wins today against the Missouri Tigers, the Tide will be locked into the 9-seed in the SEC Tournament. Their opening opponent will be either Tennessee or Texas A&M, both of whom came into Tuscaloosa and beat the Tide in what we all originally thought were Alabama’s worst two home performances of the 2020 year. Both teams are currently tied at 9-8 in conference play, with the Vols hosting Auburn and A&M hosting Arkansas today. Alabama fans should be rooting for Tennessee to lose, as that would guarantee the Volunteers to be the 8-seed. Because of their current NET rankings (Tennessee: 56; A&M: 114), the Vols would present Alabama with another Q2 opportunity on a neutral floor, whereas A&M would be a Q3 match-up.
If Alabama can advance to the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament on Friday, we know who will be awaiting the Tide: the omega of all things Tide Hoops in March, the Kentucky Wildcats. Alabama losing to Kentucky in Nashville has basically become a tradition. The Tide has had its run in Nashville ended by John Calipari’s teams each of the last four seasons, twice in the quarterfinals (2016, 2019), and twice in the semifinals (2017, 2018). Most of those match-ups haven’t even been close.
So, the 9-seed isn’t looking too appealing, though it would mean that Alabama finished the season at 17-14, as opposed to 16-15, which almost feels necessary if the Tide want any shot whatsoever at getting an at-large bid from a championship game appearance next Sunday.
The 10th Seed
A loss to Missouri today would guarantee Alabama the 10-seed in Nashville. The Crimson Tide was able to, once again, avoid participating in Sad Wednesday of the SEC Tournament (the Tide are one of only five teams in the conference who can say that). A 16-15 overall record would pretty much require the Tide to win the whole thing next week, but could the Tide do enough damage in the lead-up to its annual loss to Kentucky in the championship game to at least get a look from the selection committee?
The 10-seed would provide Alabama with a number of potential match-ups next Thursday, as Mississippi State is also in play with Tennessee and A&M for the 7-seed. However, that outcome is highly unlikely, seeing as State is hosting the rival Rebels from Ole Miss today (the Bulldogs are 7.5-point favorites). So, in this scenario, Alabama would again be hoping to match-up with Tennessee, barring a big upset in the Magnolia State.
The biggest difference in why this path would be more favorable in the Tide’s quest to be playing on Selection Sunday is what would come after a win on Thursday. Alabama’s quarterfinal opponent would be the 2-seed, which would be either Auburn, LSU, or Florida. The Tide, of course, beat each of the former two teams at home (‘Bama damn-near swept Auburn) and Alabama’s 21-point blown lead at Florida remains one of the reasons why Alabama is currently in this long-shot position.
Auburn and LSU have both faded quite a bit down the stretch: Bruce Pearl’s team has had a lot of issues scoring the basketball, while the Bayou Bengals apparently have zero interest in playing any defense whatsoever for Will Wade. And Florida is coached by Mike White, which gives just about any team a shot against them. Alabama has proven that they can compete and beat any of these teams, which would be a huge Q1 win for the Tide. If Nate Oats’ squad could advance to the semifinals on Saturday, they’d likely be playing one of the other two that they didn’t meet on Friday.
Either path would require the Tide playing much better basketball than its played lately. However, the team is certainly capable of beating anybody in this conference. Even Kentucky had to rely on a great day shooting to put Alabama away in Lexington earlier this year, causing Calipari to say that he hoped he wouldn’t have to see the Tide in March. Really, the easier path, and the path that maximizes Alabama’s tournament resume, would be landing the 10-seed, beating Tennessee-Auburn-Florida for a trio of quality wins (two of which are Q1), and seeing how things play out on Sunday in the SEC Championship Game. Of course, the drawback to this path is that Alabama would have 15 losses going into next week, and only twice in NCAA Tournament history has a team received an at-large berth with 15 losses (2017 Vanderbilt and 2018 Alabama). Which, of course, a loss in Nashville would put Alabama in uncharted territory with 16 defeats.
It definitely appears that Alabama will need to win it all in Nashville next week if the team wants to make it back to the NCAA Tournament. But, there are a couple of scenarios where the Tide could at least make it interesting come Selection Sunday. Either way, at this point, Alabama needs to approach every game as its last.