This is the season for good tidings, so consider this.
Alabama’s men’s basketball season is not over. It hasn’t been a December to remember, and Friday night’s performance against Texas in Birmingham was the most forgettable of the month.
Still, Alabama doesn’t quite come into SEC play dragging an inescapable chain like Marley’s Ghost, the way it did in other Decembers when any realistic NCAA Tournament hopes were gone before the Christmas wrapping paper was thrown away. This isn’t 2013, when Alabama posted a 12-6 record in the SEC but had five non-conference losses, three at home (including one to the seemingly ubiquitous Mercer Bears) and thus were destined for the NIT regardless of league performance.
Avery Johnson’s team this year scheduled a monumentally tough slate. That will help. In fact, it puts Alabama in better position than other SEC teams who have gaudier records but did nothing to challenge themselves from a scheduling standpoint. What will also help is that the SEC is better, from an RPI standpoint, than it has been in recent years. Virtually everyone has an RPI below 100 (the lower, the better) so teams that come into league play with solid RPIs will keep them — if they play well.
Therein lies the challenge for Alabama. The Crimson Tide has 18 conference games ahead plus a particular daunting non-conference game against Oklahoma. (In keeping with the theme of Christmas positivity, what an opportunity that game in Coleman Coliseum will be.) If Alabama matches the 12-6 league record from 2013, it will not only make the NCAA field but will get in with a comfortable seed.
The question is whether Alabama can find the requisite wins in the remaining 19 contests. Games must be played, and predictions are mere guesswork but Ken Pomeroy, the current go-to statistical analyst in college basketball, has Alabama going 8-10 in the SEC and losing to Oklahoma. That would put the Crimson Tide at 16-15 and there is almost no amount of RPI power that could overcome that. Even Vanderbilt, last year’s surprise selection, was 19-15 and had two wins over Florida in the final week of the season (one in the regular season and one in the SEC Tournament) to bolster its case.
So can Alabama do anything to expunge the writing on its headstone, as Scrooge did? Sure — if it can fix some glaring chemistry issues and play better.
Let’s not worry about projecting things out for 19 more games, though. Let’s take a smaller bite — the next three games on the Alabama schedule (a holiday-break home game against Texas A&M and road trips to Vanderbilt and Georgia). All of the games are winnable, though none will be easy. None are winnable with the effort that Alabama put in against Texas on Friday. A 3-0 start to league play would be remarkable. An 0-3 start — well, choose your own adjective.
Before any speculation about success, Alabama needs to find an identity. Is Collin Sexton a shooting guard? If he is, Alabama needs to run an offense that helps him and Dazon Ingram needs to be much more efficient at the point? Do you use Sexton at the point and run everything through him, the way Kentucky did with De’Aaron Fox last season? Do you have any alternatives for interior toughness? For the record, I think Avery Johnson is a good coach and can find these answers, but the time is now.
Here’s a peculiar statistic. Alabama hasn’t beaten a Power 5 opponent in football or men’s basketball since November 11. Both sports have another opportunity in the next eight days — opportunities that will go a long way to determining just how each team will be perceived.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.