Wimp Sanderson knows more than anyone about winning the SEC Tournament at Alabama. Here are his keys for victory | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

The first thing Wimp Sanderson points out when you ask him about the SEC Tournament is that the year is 2021, not 1982.

”I want to congratulate Nate (Oats) and his staff on a fantastic job,” Sanderson said Tuesday, chatting in a phone interview. “I’m glad to talk about our tournament teams, but times have changed. He’s got to coach his team his way.”

If that includes plaid sport coats, Sanderson is fine with that.

Sanderson’s historic perspective is important, though. In his 12 seasons as Alabama’s basketball coach (1981-1992), the Crimson Tide won the event five times and made another four appearances in the finals.

He’s also the last Alabama coach to win an SEC Tournament (in 1991, so it’s been a 30-year drought) and the last one to eliminate Kentucky, one of Alabama’s potential Friday opponents in Nashville, from an SEC Tournament: not in the memorable 1982 championship game at Rupp Arena but in a rarely-mentioned 1983 quarterfinal in Birmingham when the eighth-seeded Crimson Tide upset top-seeded Kentucky, which had seven Parade All-Americans (the 1980s version of making the McDonald’s All-American team) and its mind clearly on other tournaments.

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Sanderson was also quick to caution that you shouldn’t assume your opponent. 

“I remember one year (1986) we were sure we were going to play Auburn. I had the team breathing fire about playing Auburn. Then they lost to Mississippi State.”

With those cautionary words, Sanderson then talked about his four general rules for conference tournament success. 

“First, you’ve got to have good players,” he said. “If you don’t, you’re not going to win it. We were fortunate that we always had good players.

”Second, the (conference) tournament has to mean something to the players. If all they can think about is the NCAA Tournament, you’re not going to win. If your team is mediocre and all they can think about is going to Florida with their girlfriend, you aren’t going to win. They have to want to be there. We preached that.

Former Alabama basketball coach Wimp Sanderson converses with newly introduced Alabama basketball coach Nate Oats Thursday, March 28, 2019, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

”Third, you have be smart about the way you practice. People used to say, ‘Ol’ Wimp, he’ll practice them for three hours,’ but that never happened. I wanted them to be live-legged. We’d practice hard but short. Especially if you are looking at four games. We won three games in ‘83, but then we had to play a really good Georgia team, a Final Four team, in the finals and we couldn’t even wiggle.

“Fourth, I always tried to emphasize that whatever game you were in, that was the championship game because if you lost it, you were going home.”

Sanderson also noted that Alabama had to prepare for a “desperate” opponent on Friday.

“Their backs are going to be against the wall, doesn’t matter which one it is, Kentucky or Mississippi State,” he said. “If they lose, their season is done. It’s good for Alabama that they aren’t in that boat, but you have to be prepared to play that way.”

Also, you need a break.

Alabama’s 1982 title win in Lexington, a 48-46 thriller in the days before the shot clock, had a couple. First, Ole Miss coach Bob Weltlich, whose team lost to Kentucky in the semifinals, thought the officiating was so one-sided that he broke into tears during his postgame interview. 

“I don’t know if that affected the officials or not,” Sanderson said. “You were still playing at Kentucky. But maybe it did. We also had Mike Davis and Ennis Whatley handling the ball and we slowed it way down because they were good ball-handlers.”

In the final minute, Kentucky appeared to have a chance to play for the final shot but turned the ball over on a traveling call. With the game tied at 46, Sanderson called a clear-out for Whatley who drove to the basket — and missed. But All-SEC forward Eddie Phillips was there for the tip-in to complete the upset.

”Rule No. 1,” Sanderson said. “You’ve got to have good players.” 

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt