It seems like it was just yesterday — sleepwalking through the SEC schedule, getting keyed up for a handful of conference games a year, softly landing at 20 wins and a respectable tourney bid. Few real upsets; few surprises. There was Kentucky, Florida and then some combination of Tennessee, LSU, Alabama, Arkansas.
But something happened in the aftermath of the conference’s two-decade domination of the college football landscape: with all that money coming in, it had to go somewhere. And there are only so many indoor roller coasters and million-dollar position coaches that you can have.
So, the SEC spent it on basketball: specifically, they spent it on coaching, recruiting, and (unless you’re Alabama) facilities. That influx of cash, coupled with the region’s low taxes, a wide open conference, usually realistic expectations for hoops success, and its talent-rich environs, quality coaches flooded the SEC.
In the last half-dozen years, the Southeastern Conference has added: Ben Howland (and his three Final Fours); Kermit Davis (with his 520 wins and 9-time CoTY awards); Frank Martin (and his Final Four); Tom Crean (and his Final Four and three CoTY awards); Cuonzo Martin (widely regarded as one of the best young recruiters and coaches in the country); former NBA and Nevada coach Eric Mussleman (and his three collegiate and one D-League CoTY awards, a turnaround specialist who has worked miracles with the Wolf Pack and Hogs); Bruce Pearl (with his Final Four and Division I and II national CoTY awards); Rick Barnes (with his Final Four and five CoTY honors); Mike White (and his two CoTY awards); for fans of strong-ass offers, LSU brought in Will Wade and his charity hospital bagman to buy the Tigers’ way to an SEC title (to go with Wade’s A10 and SoCon titles). And it’s not like John Calipari has gone anywhere either: the dean of college coaches — you know, the guy with six Final Fours at three schools, a national title, 15 conference titles, and three national CoTY awards.
And then Alabama, the undisputed king of college football, decided to do something with its ungodly money that Nick Saban brought into to Tuscaloosa: It hired the best up-and-coming coach in the biz; one of the architects of modern wing-driven analytical basketball. The tempo-obsessed, defensive-minded Nate Oats
who I would take a bullet for.
Last season, through a scad of injuries, and in just his second year on campus, Oats led a band of transfers, JUCOs, freshmen, and Avery Johnson holdovers to the Tide’s first NCAA tourney berth in a dozen years and to its first Sweet 16 appearance in 15 years.
Even more is expected this season, but it absolutely will not be easy. The Tide’s non-conference schedule may be the most brutal in the nation, facing three of last season’s Final Four, including both the NCAA Champion and national runner-up (in addition to at least three other tourney teams). And now, what looked to be a relatively forgiving conference slate has given Alabama very little breathing room.
Take a look at that a bit more closely: Alabama comes out of the gate with seven games that can very easily be lost. The Tide squares off with at least three (and as many as five) teams that will be ranked in the Top 25. It opens the season with Barnes’ defensively gritty Volunteers, then immediately hits the road for back-to-back games in gyms where the Tide has struggled: CoMo and the O-Dome.
A return home provides little respite, as Alabama is greeted by its rival, Auburn. A trip to Starkville for face the Bulldogs is followed up immediately by the LSU Tigers and yet another Mizzou game.
Those seven tough outs are then “rewarded” by a breather, Georgia. Except even that’s on the road — where Crean just knows how to play Oats. Last season, the Bulldogs lit up the Tide in one of the season’s wildest games (105-102 come from behind win by ‘Bama).
After that? Kentucky — part of a two-week span that will see the Crimson Tide face UK twice and meet Arkansas in Coleman. To round it all off, Alabama ends its season on the road. Against LSU.
While the back half is a bit gentler than the first half of the schedule, there are a few positive things that come out of this at least:
- Alabama does not travel to Fayetteville, our own private Idaho of despair. Alabama doesn’t just lose in Arkansas; they get blown out.
- There are only two 11:00 a.m. games. Alabama has been very sluggish in morning games under Coach Oats, but that may be a function of the personnel; that remains TBD. (Unfortunately those two early slots are against Arkansas and the season finale in Baton Rouge).
- There is no trip to Knoxville this season, where the Vols are practically unbeatable at home.
- Alabama gets Auburn in Tuscaloosa first this year, rather than later. So, any sort of clownish, buffoonish stunts Bruce Pearl wants to pull this season will have to be done in our house. Ditto LSU
- Alabama also draws Kentucky first at home. Knowing if this team can hit the broad side of a barn before heading to Rupp is always an advantage.
- Finally, there is just the one meeting vs. UT and Florida this season
Is this an insurmountable schedule? Nope, not at all. Those first seven games, that back-half stretch with UK/Arkansas, that finale at LSU? All of them are winnable. Every game on this schedule is winnable for Alabama (just as a great many can be lost). But to have the season Oats expects, and that lives up to the talent level this team has acquired, will require significant discipline, some injury luck, and being dialed in every week.
The SEC just isn’t a place for the faint of heart anymore.