Don’t look now, but Alabama basketball is on quite the tear. The once-frustrating Tide now sits at No. 22 in the NET rankings and it is firmly in control of not only its tourney fortune, but a very good seed-line in the NCAA Tournament.
Three weeks ago, few would have predicted this either. The season began with 11 new (and practically new) players on the roster and with almost no opportunity for a much-needed exhibition season. It was clear that this team needed one too. Coach Oats needed to work on a rotation and find the best starting five; he had to determine who’s the next off the bench depending on the situation. That says nothing of the team learning how to play with another, play within the offense, and learn to trust each other.
After a one-game thrashing of Jax State, the Tide jumped with both feet into an incredibly steep early learning curve. Their second game came against a veteran Stanford Cardinal team, presently T-2nd in the Pac 12. Then, after a win over a bad UNLV squad, the Tide faced four straight foes in the NET Top 80 — Providence, WKU, No. 15 Clemson, and Furman. The Tide earned a split, but going into the Christmas break, Alabama had arguably underperformed, posting just a meager 4-3 record and facing a nasty conference slate.
Then came an alleged lockeroom altercation involving some of the team’s senior players, with the blow-up resulting in a healthy scratch of John Petty just as ‘Bama opened SEC play.
But, as weird as it is to say, that fracas seems to have pulled the team together, not driven them apart. In one of the best defensive efforts of the season, Alabama routed the Ole Miss Rebels. They followed that up with a very gritty road win over one of the nation’s best, the No. 7 Tennessee Volunteers. It was the first road win over a Top 10 team in 16 years for Bama Hoops.
Suddenly, Alabama was sitting at 2-0 in the conference, riding a three-game winning streak, and hosting its long-time foil, the Florida Gators. It was a laugher: The Crimson Tide blew the Gators out, handing UF its worst loss of the year to-date. Then yesterday, partially because of the usual Bruce Pearl shenanigans, Alabama and Auburn put on a run n’ gun exhibition of full-court hoops that was a joy for viewers. At the end of the day, Alabama had gutted out a 94-90 win, where John Petty played outstanding defense on Sharife Cooper in the waning moments. It was a demon-haunted place too — Auburn had not lost to the Tide on its homecourt since 2015, and just its third such win on the Plains in the last 11 seasons.
Alabama is now on a five-game winning streak and in first place in the SEC (9-3, 4-0) with Tuesday’s latest must-win game coming on the road against a team that has tormented it for 80 years: the Kentucky Wildcats. No conference team has absolutely owned Alabama quite like the Wildcats have: Bama’s record sits at 38-114, and have only taken three games against UK in the last decade. And the Tide face Cal’s team two times this season, just two weeks apart.
But, this looks to be a different game than it was a month ago — UK was off to its worst start in half a century, sitting at just 1-6. Alabama was one game above .500. And now these two are the only undefeateds left in the SEC, with the winner taking sole control of the conference. Whether it is effort justification, a ‘Bama squad being a dozen games deep into the 2021 season, an improvement in rebounding and defensive effort, the roster rotation, players getting healthy, Nate Oats getting through to them a little better — or all of these factors and more — it is a huge game.
This is not just a big game for conference standings or the NCAA tournament; it’s another opportunity for Nate Oats to change the culture of ‘Bama basketball and to etch his name across the front of this program. The task it a tall one, to be sure. Despite this being a wounded, weaker Wildcats squad than of recent vintage, it is nevertheless a Kentucky team that stocked with McDonald’s All-Americans and blue-chippers, and it is also one coached by one of the sport’s very best.
No one is going to hang their heads with a loss tomorrow. But, make no mistake, for the first time in years, this is also one that Alabama can win. And a win in Lexington would speak volumes about the trajectory of this program.