The Southeastern Conference men’s basketball season is in its final two weeks and the first priority for every team with postseason aspirations is clear.
Hold on to your home court as tightly as you can.
Part of the improvement evident in the SEC in 2018 is at the top, but the more telling metric starts on the other end of the standings. The league isn’t just good because there are a couple of outstanding teams at the top, which has been the Florida/Kentucky paradigm of the past 15 years or so.
The league is tougher now because the bottom teams aren’t walkovers. There are no albatrosses with plus-200 RPI’s pulling the league’s rankings down. In the big picture, that’s a good thing.
Teams that play well have a chance to improve their NCAA chances during the conference season, which hasn’t always been the case. One, and perhaps two, of Anthony Grant’s Alabama teams played NCAA-level basketball in the SEC season but could not overcome inconsistent Decembers and ended up in the NIT.
In the smaller picture of a given Saturday, though, things get tough.
Ask Auburn, which found out in Columbia, South Carolina, on Saturday.
Ask Florida, which found out in Nashville.
Ask Tennessee, which found out in Athens.
Ask Missouri, winners of five straight until it went to Baton Rouge.
Alabama’s situation was somewhat different. Facing Kentucky at Rupp Arena is never a spa day. There’s a reason Alabama hasn’t won in Lexington since 2006. Even if this year’s team is not vintage Kentucky — the much-discussed “four-game losing streak” included three road games and a two-point home loss to Tennessee when the Wildcats had a chance to tie or win in the closing seconds — it’s a tough place to play.
That doesn’t mean you just shrug and say “road game” without looking at the reasons why Alabama didn’t win a game when they were within two points with just over three minutes to go. The Crimson Tide guarded Kentucky’s initial possessions well enough, but got crushed on the Wildcat end by offensive rebounds.
That’s not an entirely new issue this season — UA lacks a power rebounder like Bola Olaniyan. But Kentucky was big enough and physical enough to turn that from a concern into a crisis. UA also didn’t hold its composure very well over that last 3:15 and a team must do that to win away from home.
Alabama faces another tough road test on Wednesday and Auburn, then may be in a season-defining homestand against Arkansas and Florida before closing out at Texas A&M. That’s a tough stretch, but the games at Coleman Coliseum are certainly winnable.
Beyond that, the SEC Tournament in St. Louis should be four days of chaos. Alabama is still in position to get a coveted double-bye in the event with a top four finish that is not out of reach; again, winning the home games with Arkansas and Florida would give the Crimson Tide crucial tiebreakers against those two teams.
No one is pleased with Alabama’s 10 losses, least of all Avery Johnson. Some have been explainable, others less so. But Alabama still has everything a college basketball team plays for within reach. If that reach extends away from Tuscaloosa, that will only improve their chances.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.