The familiar theme for the SEC Basketball Tournament, at least as far as Alabama is concerned, remains unchanged — the Crimson Tide needs to win some games.
Only once in the past 13 seasons has Alabama entered the tournament with anything resembling a cushion. Anthony Grant’s 2012 team didn’t have to have a win over South Carolina to make the NCAA Tournament field, although it got one anyway. At some point this summer, I am going to research that team, a fierce defensive unit that may have been the worst 3-point shooting team to make the NCAA field in the past decade.
Not a single player on the team made even one-third of his 3-point shots. An almost guaranteed trivia winner: name that team’s best 3-point shooter. I had to look it up. It was Charles Hankerson, who made 16 of 49 (32.7 percent.) On the other hand, that team was consistently strong on the defensive end. Not a single opponent scored 70 points against 2012 Alabama after Jan. 21. In 2019, Alabama has allowed six teams to score 70 or more since the start of February.
The point isn’t that all teams have to play the same way. What a team does need, though, is an identity. Alabama 2012 had one. Alabama 2019 heads to Nashville still looking for one. Avery Johnson said Tuesday he had a pre-practice talk that lasted nearly an hour before the team departed. He wouldn’t repeat what was said, but it’s remarkable that, at this point in the season, a coach finds it necessary to talk for more than five minutes.
As noted, though, Alabama needs wins. Last year, in a similar predicament, the Crimson Tide got those wins — the thriller over Texas A&M, a blowout against Auburn, and made the field. This year, despite the slipperiness of the NCAA bubble, two wins might do the same thing. Here is the issue: this Ole Miss team is probably as tough (if not as talented) as the Texas A&M team Collin Sexton skewered in the final second.
And potential second-round opponent Kentucky is exponentially better than 2018 Auburn was after the injury that ended Anthony McLemore’s season a couple of weeks earlier. So the chances are not great, although a second win over Kentucky this season and a 19-16 record might (barely) be enough.
Who else needs wins in Nashville, leaving out the four Wednesday night participants, all needing sustained divine intervention? The Arkansas-Florida loser probably isn’t going to feel very comfortable. If that loser is Arkansas, the Hogs are out. If Florida loses, a 17-15 record, even with some Quadrant 1’s and a good schedule, is nothing to feel comfortable about. Ole Miss would be 20-12 with a loss to Alabama, but should be fine.
The only other team that needs some wins, intriguingly enough, is South Carolina. The Gamecocks were 11-7 in SEC play but has a disastrous pre-conference with losses to Virginia, Wofford and Michigan, which were survivable, and Stony Brook and Wyoming, which may not be. At 16-15, even a run to the finals would only put the Gamecocks two games above .500 so they may need to win the whole thing.
LSU doesn’t need wins although off-court drama makes them an intriguing story line. Will they play hard for missing coach Will Wade? Will they be vulnerable in a Friday game that doesn’t matter much, aside from pride?
Kentucky and Tennessee, Auburn and Mississippi State can all relax this weekend. They will play hard, surely, but have a cushion. Alabama, once again, has no such seat cushion — and may have no seat on the bus at all.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225