Life on the bubble: Can Alabama salvage a season and turn its basketball program around?
Watching Alabama basketball is like watching an episode of Sanford and Son.
The last month of conference action has been a roller coaster for the Crimson Tide, producing a four-game win streak and a three-game losing streak, deflating home losses to Arkansas and Tennessee, marquee wins against Auburn and Mississippi State, and an injury to perhaps the most valuable player on the roster in Herb Jones. Alabama’s season has been so dramatic you keep waiting for Fred Sanford to appear, clutching his chest and stumbling backward while shouting, “Elizabeth! I’m comin’ to join you, honey!”
In other words, it may all be entertaining, but not necessarily good for the heart.
Now the Crimson Tide (13-10 overall, 5-5 SEC) hopes to complete the series sweep against its archrival this Wednesday at Auburn Arena, and in doing so salvage a season on the brink.
Auburn (21-2 overall, 8-2 SEC) is storming into this contest having won 6 games in a row, three of which were overtime affairs, including Saturday’s electrifying win over then-conference-leading LSU. The Tigers have cumulatively the best record in the league and are undefeated at home, but played perhaps their worst game of the season in an 83-64 road loss to Alabama on January 15. It’s safe to say that Auburn’s rolling ball of fire will be fueled by revenge on Wednesday night.
Alabama has two reasons to be optimistic, however. First, the team is playing much better on the road than in recent years. Forget the egg the team laid against LSU in Baton Rouge, the road wins recently collected at Vanderbilt and Georgia, coupled with the way the Tide performed in hostile environments in Gainesville on Jan. 4 against Florida and in State College, Pa, on Dec. 14 against Penn State is evidence that Alabama is developing some sense of confidence on the road.
Secondly, the first game in Tuscaloosa was not close. Though both teams played poorly, Alabama held Auburn to 31 percent field goal percentage and forced 21 turnovers in an 83-64 win. If head coach Nate Oats can motivate his team to give the same defensive effort this time around, the Tide has a fighting chance. But the problem is that Auburn shoots 46.8 percent from the field and hits nearly one-third of all its 3’s on its home floor.
Last week the Oats Boat hit choppy waters in Tuscaloosa before finding tranquil seas in Athens. Against Tennessee on Tuesday, Alabama stretched out to a 15-point first half lead only to see that lead disintegrate in the second refrain and the Volunteers walk away with a 1-point victory at Coleman Coliseum. The oxygen left the building with 3:23 left to play when forward John Fulkerson made a dunk that put Tennessee up by 2. For the next three minutes, the Volunteers methodically drove in the nail on Alabama’s fate while the men in red looked discombobulated. Kira Lewis Jr.’s anticlimactic 3-pointer to pull the Tide within 1 as the buzzer sounded did nothing to help the 9,651 inside the barnlike coliseum feel any better about the Tide’s postseason plans. It was the second home loss in a row for Alabama and yet another chapter in an increasingly familiar narrative of the Oatsian winter: start strong, finish weak.
Then something magical happened on Saturday. Alabama pulled off a major road win against Georgia—in overtime, no less—and in doing so, left the door to the NCAA tournament cracked. Now a win at Auburn on Wednesday could slingshot the Tide into a strong February finish and into the field of 68.
But how optimistic should Tide fans be, really? What evidence is there that Alabama could go on a run for the next 8 conference games plus the SEC Tournament? Well, here is some:
1. There are enough good players to go around.
Though Oats is now shuttling out only 8 players, the team still has enough firepower to win. Against Georgia, John Petty Jr. got the breakout game he needed offensively, scoring 21 points on 8 of 15 shooting. Jaden Shackelford, a contender for SEC Freshman of the Year, can hit from almost anywhere on the floor, and Kira Lewis Jr. is coming off a career high of 37 points in Athens. Forward Javian Davis is playing his best basketball of the season and Alex Reese, who can step out and swish the 3 or shot-fake and drive to the cup, is one of the toughest players to guard in entire conference.
2. Alabama’s strength of schedule will work in its favor
Looking back, you wish Alabama could have gotten a win at Penn State, against North Carolina, and against Rhode Island. Had the Tide won those games, it would be sitting pretty at 16-7. But just the fact that these teams were on the schedule (North Carolina is still North Carolina, even during a bad year) should help Alabama in the eyes of the selection committee. Currently, Alabama’s schedule ranks as the 33rd toughest in the country according to the College Basketball Power Index (BPI).
3. Herb Jones will likely be back for the SEC tournament—and maybe earlier
Herb Jones excels in the little things—garbage buckets, taking charges, tie-ups—and it’s obvious that his injury briefly crumbled the architecture of this team. But don’t expect the blue-collar swingman from Greensboro, Alabama, to disappear on the bench; he’ll likely return before the Crimson Tide concludes regular season conference play.
Overall, there have been flashes of promise and fans seem to be pleased with the effort Oats’ team is putting out, but in many ways, it’s the same old broken record for this basketball program—an LP entitled “Life on the Bubble.” Critical injuries have certainly taken a toll this season, but perhaps the team’s biggest deficit is its inability to take care of the little details of the game—mitigating turnovers, eliminating unnecessary fouls, blocking out—over which great teams exhibit mastery.
Still, if the Tide can hold on for dear life for the next few weeks, the return of Jones might be shot in the arm the team needs to stumble into the tournament. And as maddening as this season has been at times, making the NCAA tournament would be a refreshing start to the Nate Oats era—and a sign that this program is indeed on the upswing.
At this point, Tide fans will take almost any sign they can get.