ST. LOUIS — Late in Saturday’s SEC Tournament semifinal game, as Kentucky continued to put shots into the air and, inevitably, into the basket, you could see the frustration on the faces of the Alabama players — Collin Sexton, John Petty, Braxton Key and others. They weren’t in St. Louis simply for a pat on the back and a little positive publicity.
For three games, from buzzer-beating drama to, finally, disappointment, they displayed three days of wanting to win.
Was Alabama perfect? No, of course not. But consider where this Alabama team was less than a week ago, when it boarded a plane for Missouri. The regular season had ended with five straight losses.
At least one prominent NCAA bracketologist, Jerry Palm of CBS, deemed the Crimson Tide was so far off the so-called “bubble” that it wasn’t even worth discussing UA’s chances. There was a debate among some Alabama fans — not all, but a few — as to whether UA should turn down the NIT bid that was looming ominously on the horizon.
By Saturday, even allowing for the pain of another Wenyen Gabriel 3-pointer raining down from the top of the Gateway Arch, Alabama was in a different place. It had beaten Texas A&M on a buzzer-beater that made national headlines and gave UA its most memorable postseason moment in a decade or more.
Then came a win against Auburn, a victory that didn’t mean a championship but does allow the Crimson Tide some gloating rights with a winning record against the Tigers for the season.
More importantly, perhaps, it was yet another Quadrant A win for Alabama, the eighth of the season, a mark that seemed to change the Crimson Tide’s NCAA hopes from “gone” to a foregone conclusion.
Such things don’t happen simply because Avery Johnson pushed a magic button or said a secret password that Nick Saban provided for him, although Johnson did say Saturday that Saban had given him “one really good tip” about the basketball team earlier in the week. Johnson declined to divulge what that tip might have been.
Alabama appeared to have worked on some problem areas. Sexton’s role seemed more clearly defined, and that in turn seemed to make Dazon Ingram more effective. Rebounding was still an issue against towering Texas A&M but was much improved in the games against Auburn and Kentucky, two teams that dominated Alabama on the glass during the five-game skid.
Perhaps an even better sign was that Petty gave a glimpse of his firepower potential in the second half of the UK game. If he is once again a consistent 3-point threat after a long shooting slump, that changes the way that upcoming opponents must prepare.
The absence of Donta Hall, out with a concussion, was problematic Saturday, both offensively and, especially, defensively. It wouldn’t be fair to dismiss Kentucky’s great shooting performance as a function of Hall’s absence, but it did leave Alabama without a shot-blocking presence at the rim.
What’s more, consider this from UK coach John Calipari: when Gabriel was on his second-half 3-point binge, he was actually playing center for the Wildcats (a luxury of talent is that Kentucky could surround him with forwards at 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-10). That meant that either Galin Smith or Daniel Giddens had to guard the quicker player 20 feet away from the rim, far from their comfort zone. Hall might have fared better.
Alabama didn’t leave St. Louis transformed, just improved. There are still issues that must be handled (Hall’s return is a necessity), but at least the Crimson Tide seems to be walking confidently into the postseason instead of slouching to an unwelcome fate.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.