Every time Alabama basketball fans are ready to set aside their crazy dreams for this season, pointing their focus on the future, this 2017 team does something that, like the paddles of a defibrillator, jolts those dreams back to unexpected life.
No one is predicting the Crimson Tide is going to storm through three more games in the SEC Tournament and make the stunning leap from Nashville to the NCAA. But watching the Crimson Tide put together two strong halves in a blowout of Mississippi State at least gave those in town something to chew on besides the hot chicken at Hattie B’s.
Could Alabama get past South Carolina playing the way it did on Thursday? Well, UA has already beaten the Gamecocks in Columbia, and while South Carolina is an NCAA-bound team, the Gamecock style suits Alabama. The game will match the two best defensive teams in the league by any statistical measure and if it grinds around in the 55-point range, that’s just the sort of mud that Alabama likes to roll around in. The Crimson Tide would also appreciate South Carolina duplicating its 3-for-30 first-half shooting numbers from that game.)
Let’s just assume Alabama will pull the mild upset and get past South Carolina. That would probably put UA up against Kentucky – the “probably” is there because Georgia has been a tough matchup for UK this season, playing the Wildcats to the final minute and beyond (in one overtime loss) in both meetings. If the opponent were to be Georgia, Alabama would have a chance as it showed by winning in Athens. If it’s Kentucky, well…
Alabama hasn’t eliminated UK from an SEC Tournament since 1983, when it nudged the Wildcats out in a semifinal. Since then, there have been seven meetings and UK has put Alabama out seven times, including last year’s game in which the Wildcats toyed with Alabama like a mouse. Add the home-away-from-homecourt advantage that UK enjoys in Nashville and the dream seems far-fetched, indeed.
What’s worth watching, though, is how Alabama maintains the poise it showed against Mississippi State. Crimson Tide head coach Avery Johnson talked about the anomaly in his Monday press conference. When Alabama is coming off a loss, the team’s focus seems sharper, it’s practices more crisp. Thursday’s win was a perfect example of how that carries over.
But for some reason, Alabama has made a recent habit of losing that focus after one good performance. Perhaps now that it is in a play-every-day scenario, the attention deficit won’t be so likely to settle in. There’s certainly a good deal to play for yet, even if it is the sheer joy of playing. Under the new formula for bracketing the tournament that came in when Missouri and Texas A&M joined the league, the real excitement doesn’t start until Friday when the top teams play, the arena fills up and the stakes — especially for teams without an NCAA bid in their pocket – get higher.
That makes any Friday appearance a step forward in Alabama’s rebuilding process, one that has been more focused on next season with its influx of recruits, than this one. But there’s nothing that says that Alabama can’t take at least one more step – and gain some valuable experience for players like Dazon Ingram and Braxton Key, the core of next year’s team – on this trip to Nashville.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.