At times in Alabama’s loss at Arkansas in Saturday evening’s basketball game, you would get the feeling that you were watching some weird experimental film, running backward, not forward in the way that one understands lineal time. As routine passes sailed three feet out of bounds, as Alabama fast-break opportunities repeatedly turned into blocked shots, or poor shot selection or turnovers that Arkansas efficiently took the other way, one got the feeling that this was a group of players who had met one another for the first time on the bus ride to the game.
Cohesion wasn’t the only issue, but it was certainly one big problem, and has been for a few weeks. The weird thing is that it wasn’t that way when the conference season started in January. Alabama played well in the first 37 minutes of a spirit-lifting upset of Kentucky even though the Wildcats outscoring Alabama 16-3 in the final 2:28 of the game (and having a chance at a game-winning shot) might have suggested that something was amiss in the poise department. Alabama then lost at LSU but was competitive against the eventual conference champions on their home floor. But. If the Kentucky win muffled the warning sirens, the loss to Texas A&M at home should have had them blaring loud, with all of Alabama’s scariest symptoms — the second-half collapse after building a huge lead, the failure to pay attention to detail and stop T.J. Starks long before he got close enough to make a game-winning shot, even of the circus variety.
But Alabama didn’t collapse then. Instead, it won five of its next seven games, moved two games above .500 in league play and while no one was talking Final Four, chances for a better-than-predicted conference finish and an NCAA at-large bid were realistic.
Then, suddenly, they weren’t. Was it one game at Auburn that triggered the turnaround? Was it an accumulation of factors? How did Avery Johnson seemingly lose the ability to extract energy from his team, when that should be as easy as starting you car every morning?
When did the battery die?
Where, to paraphrase the eulogist in “The Big Chill,” did Alabama’s hope go?
It has barely been visible for weeks now. Yes, some of the losses have been to very good teams — LSU, Auburn, even Arkansas when Daniel Gafford is playing at NBA level. But none of the performances Alabama put in was good (except at South Carolina) and some were painful, surely, for Alabama fans to watch.
Was the team never that good in the first place? Was the win over Kentucky an illusion? Was the second-half effort that pushed Tennessee to the wire a stroke of luck? One can make an argument that, even allowing for the Kentucky win, that game in Knoxville was more inspiring to Alabama fans than any other.
The final analysis of the regular season comes to this: of Alabama’s eight SEC wins, four came against the bottom three teams in the league. Two came against historically bad Vanderbilt. Alabama beat one team with a winning record (South Carolina) after Jan. 29, with all sorts of reasons to be motivated.
Two things were glaring in the late-season games against good opposition. Alabama has no inside strength to speak of — rebounding looks like a bag of McDonald’s French fries attempting to block out a 6-foot-10 pot roast. I understand that Alabama recruits “long” athletes, but look at the physical development of guys like Auburn’s Chuma Ekeke or Tennessee’s Grant Williams over time. Against Arkansas, Alabama was overmatched inside and not just by Gafford.
Second, Alabama has no ballhandlers. They have some players who can handle the ball if necessary, but it’s the difference in having someone who can bang out “Happy Birthday” on the piano and have an actual pianist. It’s odd that the roster is in the shape it is in, not that recruiting has been “bad,” but it hasn’t addressed either need.
Building a roster is a coach’s responsibility. So is building confidence. Yes, you would like to rely on your players to do it themselves. Avery Johnson, who had several interesting quotes after the Arkansas loss, had one that went unnoticed but said a good bit.
“Obviously last year, we had an all-SEC player who’s playing in the pros now and he pretty much just willed us through a lot of those games with his toughness. Now we’re trying to do it a little more collectively as a team. … Hopefully we’ll be able to see something to spark our team this week.”
The players can’t all be Collin Sexton. He’s not coming back. And the time to see a spark was a month ago — and not “hopefully.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.
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