NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Every car in Tuscaloosa that is not securely tucked in a garage is caked in pollen.
Kentucky eliminated Alabama from the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Friday night.
Those are the two unmistakable signs of March. Both are annoying, but accepted as inevitable, familiar parts of the natural order of things, problems without any real solution except to wait until the season changes and/or football arrives.
In and of itself, losing to Kentucky isn’t the problem — no one else has beaten the Wildcats in the last four SEC Tournaments, and there are probably only two or three teams in the country, if that many, that would be favored against UK in Nashville.
The tournament wasn’t a disaster for Alabama. The comeback against Ole Miss was one of the season’s better moments. There were abundant errors against Kentucky but the energy level was acceptable, even too frenetic at times. Alabama wasn’t as good as the No. 4 team in America. No one necessarily thinks Alabama should be a top 4 team, although it would be nice if such a thing seemed remotely possible every decade or so.
The depressing part of the day was earlier, listening to the results of games around the nation, realizing that Alabama had been reduced yet again to pulling against teams like Nebraska and Rhode Island and a dozen others who might prevent the final at-large bid from being stolen. Meanwhile, Ole Miss, for example, was sitting at home in Oxford, knowing it is in the NCAA field and contemplating its seed.
Alabama has been in that position once in the past 13 years. Consider: In 13 years, Alabama has had one regular season as accomplished as the one Ole Miss — a team that hardly looked talent-laden in its two losses to the Crimson Tide — achieved this year. Not Kentucky, not Florida. Not once in 13 years has Alabama been better than Ole Miss was this year. Ole Miss. They will be a mid-level seed, an 8 or a 9, not because of talent but because of relatively consistent effort, a tenacity on their home court and a competitive streak. It’s been 13 years since Alabama was better than that.
For a fan, that’s scant return for 13 years of interest and attendance. No one knows for sure what the NCAA Selection Committee will do this year, operating under a new set of criteria. No bracket expert thinks Alabama will even make a First Four game. What will probably happen on Sunday is that Alabama will get an NIT bid (which it will accept.)
Greg Byrne, the Alabama athletic director, indicated on Friday night he would wait until Sunday, see where Alabama lands and then talk with head coach Avery Johnson about the future.
Whatever comes out of that conversation, Alabama fans deserve to know the plan. If Byrne wants to make an unconditional change, there’s a big buyout involved ($8 million today, down to $6 million on April 16, and that doesn’t even start to hire someone else.) The program hasn’t cratered to some 10-21 record that would make for an easy decision. Johnson mentioned that Alabama has talented young players on the roster, which is true, and a recruiting class that he likes.
But the question that needs to be answered is why a senior, Donta Hall, sat at the postgame podium after the Kentucky loss and said this about the 2019 problems:
“Our energy could be up and down,” Hall said. “It was attitude. Commitment. Stuff like that.”
Does Johnson want to address those issues, all the “stuff like that?” Can he? Does he have a strong plan, or a strong commitment to implement one?
This isn’t a one-year issue. It gives back further than Johnson, further than Byrne. It’s been 13 years since Alabama was relevant, except for a Collin Sexton buzzer beater. Forget about all this year’s disappointment, or the frustration of seeing a season that was well-positioned for an NCAA return go swirling down the drain on a silent Sunday selection show.
What matters is the future.
At the moment, some people still care. But what if the same thing happens for a 14th year, and then a 15th? It’s happened for 13 more or less wasted years already. What’s to stop it from stretching to another 13 years?
Sooner or later, things have to change. Alabama has to step up institutionally and say “enough is enough” and make a change and then spend at a level necessary to make it a worthwhile change. Otherwise, tell everyone right up front that things are going to stay as they are so everyone can find more productive things to do at this time of year, like wash their cars.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225
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