Even in those years when the Alabama basketball team doesn’t make it into the NCAA Tournament field — and it has been a long, barren stretch of road for a decade except for a quick stop in North Carolina four years ago — I try to cover at least one weekend of the tournament. There is no greater day in college sports than a four-game, eight-team opening round when everyone’s hopes are still alive, fan bases are excited and — if you’re lucky — an entire community gets involved.
That’s not to diminish the importance of the College Football Playoff, which has been a great spectacle and, for Alabama, a powerful emotional ride for three years. What could be better than last year’s Alabama-Clemson drama, after all? But the football playoff has two elements, hard to reconcile, that make it different. First, even at four teams, it is a war of attrition for players and, in a different way, for fans. You don’t so much win the playoff as you survive it.
Secondly, the very nature of the sport prevents it from being inclusive. Alabama and Clemson, the finalists from the 2015 and 2016 seasons, are huge, well-financed operations. So, for all the talk of expanding to eight teams (which may yet happen) or even 16 (heaven forbid), there will never be a Cinderella story in football without a very affluent Cinderella.
This weekend, through the efforts of the hardworking Troy University media relations office, I was on hand in Greenville, S.C., for a regional. All in one place, all in one day, you go from asking questions to Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams to listening to Troy’s enthusiastic young coach Phil Cunningham and reuniting with an acquaintance of nearly 40 years, Fayette native and Texas Southern coach Mike Davis (with a full column coming on Monday.) You get to gauge in person, with a wider perspective than television allows, just how far away Alabama is from making it back to the tournament.
The Crimson Tide beat South Carolina twice this season, so it’s hard to argue that there is a great distance between the two teams. They’d be better than Marquette on a good night, roughly even with Seton Hall and probably closer to Arkansas than a 20-point loss in Fayetteville suggests. Duke would shoot the Crimson Tide dizzy. North Carolina is the best team I have seen in person in a few years, far more imposing than Oregon or Kentucky. So there’s work to be done.
But it is work worth doing. The best thing of the weekend was how Greenville embraced the games. Yes, it helps to have Duke and North Carolina and the state university (South Carolina) all at your site. But Greenville was giddy about basketball this weekend and there’s no disputing that it’s primarily a football town. I do not know how much the South Carolina Department of Transportation budgeted for “Clemson 2016 College Football National Champions” signs but they spent plenty, at every border crossing.
If South Carolina can have basketball fever, at least for a weekend, then Alabama can, too. I don’t know if there will be actual tournament games in the state until Birmingham gets a new (or upgraded) arena but it’s still possible for the spirit to take hold. Troy had an enthusiastic, exuberant crowd and Cunningham spent a good portion of his post-game press conference talking about what a boost this appearance was for the entire Troy athletic department.
Multiply that by 100 or so, if and when Alabama (and Auburn and UAB) start making regular appearances. That’s not impossible — and will be a great day when it finally arrives.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.
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