After surviving last-place Vanderbilt, Alabama basketball can end 19-year SEC title drought next
Only the rarest of basketball teams simply cruises to the championship of a Power Five conference.
Even a team that is far superior to its league competition, like Gonzaga, occasionally has to gut out a win or two along the way. So with Alabama coming off a week of distractions that included a postponement against Texas A&M and a two-day discussion of Nate Oats’ new contract, there was no surprise that a traditionally tough out, Vanderbilt, took the Crimson Tide to the wire.
One of the fascinating things to watch in this unexpected Alabama season has been the way the Crimson Tide has handled a sort of pressure that even its seniors haven’t faced in their careers. Alabama started quickly in its first six games, beating most of the usual contenders and going from a predicted fifth-place finish in the league’s preseason poll to the sudden front-runners.
But if you ever watched a Kentucky Derby, you know that, more often than not, speed horses meet their fate in the backstretch, not at the finish line.
The team’s senior core of John Petty Jr., Herb Jones and Alex Reese were around when Colin Sexton salvaged the 2018 NCAA Tournament bid, but that team was under .500 in the SEC after losing five games in a row to end the regular season.
This is different.
There is nothing Alabama would like better than to wrap up all the title talk on Wednesday at Arkansas. No, it’s not absolutely necessary: With games remaining against Mississippi State and Auburn (and possibly Texas A&M), there is a cushion. But this team hasn’t had the year it has had thus far by sitting on a cushion.
”Seeing where we were picked, knowing all the work we put in, it means a lot,” Jones said about Wednesday’s game.
Alabama drubbed Arkansas 90-59 on Jan. 16, but Oats says that the Razorbacks, winners of seven straight SEC games before an idle Saturday due to Texas A&M’s COVID-19 issues, are “entirely different” today.
“We haven’t scouted them for this game yet, but I’ve seen them play enough to know they are significantly better,” Oats said. “They are moving the ball great, playing better defense. If they had played today, based on the way we played (against Vanderbilt), they probably would have looked better than we did.”
It isn’t always about looking good, though. As Oats perused the final stats, he mentioned Petty as an example.
“In the past, if he goes 1-for-7 on threes, we probably don’t win the game,” Oats said. “Tonight, you look at his toughness on the defensive end, finding other ways to contribute.”
That intangible difference – whether you attribute it to Oats or senior leadership or chemistry or a combination of all those elements – is why Alabama has a chance, difficult as it might be, to cut down nets for the first time in almost 20 years
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt