NCAA Tournament or bust: Alabama basketball entering most important stretch of season
This past Saturday at Coleman Coliseum, two young boys draped their bodies over the tunnel railing, hoping to get a high-five from members of the Alabama basketball team. Colored fog shot out of a machine and made a sound like an 18-wheeler putting on its brakes. Nearly 12,000 fans stood to their feet as a saxophonist played the National Anthem. And then the show began.
There were dunks, 3-point bombs and plenty of fouls along the way, but in the end Alabama snuck by Kansas State 77-74 in the annual Big 12/SEC Challenge to improve to 12-7 overall.
No, this wasn’t Bryant-Denny Stadium, home of the venerated Alabama football team, but for the first time in a number of Januarys, it’ll do.
If conference wins were vegetables at an all-you-can-eat buffet, Alabama would already have its fill — and its not even February. The Crimson Tide, tied with Auburn and Florida for 3rd place the SEC standings with a 4-2 record, are entering the most critical stretch of the season beginning Wednesday night in Baton Rouge against first-place LSU.
ESPN March Madness guru Joe Lunardi has Alabama as his “First Four Out,” a grouping that also includes Mississippi State, Rhode Island and Virginia Tech. But the way Alabama is playing, enjoying a 4-game winning streak in league action while offering fans an exciting brand of basketball, you have to like the team’s chances of making the Big Dance and dispelling Lunardi’s predictions of a tournament demise.
The Tide’s recent victory against undefeated Auburn was the marquee win the team needed to get the committee’s attention, but now the focus is padding the resume with the massive opportunities this week. The next 6 games will likely determine Alabama’s postseason fate, but fortunately all are winnable games (after LSU, Alabama faces Arkansas at home, Tennessee at home, Georgia away, Auburn away, and LSU at home).
Coleman Coliseum is becoming a death trap for opposing teams, as Alabama has won the past 8 on its home floor. That’s all well and good, but eking into the tournament may indeed rest on the Crimson Tide’s ability to put on the spiked shoulder pads and morph into Road Warriors, which, based on recent history, would be an out-of-body experience.
So in what areas does this team need to improve?
After the Kansas State game, Alabama head coach Nate Oats lamented his team’s inability to keep the Wildcats off the offensive glass. This has certainly been a point of emphasis this week in practice, as LSU ranks 4th in the conference on the offensive boards (237) and 3rd in total rebounds (757).
Kira Lewis Jr. and John Petty Jr. continue to shoulder the scoring load for the Crimson Tide, but a consistent third scorer can help neutralize those pesky offensive droughts that plague Oats’ team (see Iowa State, Samford and Kansas State). Jaden Shackelford (12.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg) seems like the player to fill that role, as Alabama has lost only one game when the freshman phenom scores more than 15 points.
Though Alabama can be turnover-happy and there have been times when breaking the press looks like an excruciating venture — similar to Lou Ferrigno in a tutu attempting to master the art of ballet — 3-pointers have been the cure-all for the Crimson Tide’s ails. Alabama leads the SEC in 3-pointers made (197) and 3-point field goal percentage (35.8). Alabama has 6 shooters who are capable of hitting a 3-pointer from anywhere, at anytime. That bodes well for Oats’ Boat as it moves into choppier seas, but quality of shots has to improve.
To make the NCAA Tournament, it will also be important for Alabama to keep John Petty dialed in. Leading 59-43 against Kansas State with 12:14 left in the game, Alabama seemed to be cruising to an easy win. But a furious rally brought the Wildcats within 1 point with 4:16 to play. During that stretch, Petty got only 2 shot attempts — both of which he missed — and Alabama just about blew a home game to a middling Big 12 team fresh off an in-state brawl that bore multiple suspensions. Petty has a huge upside and is projected as a late 1st-rounder in the NBA Draft, but Oats cannot afford for him to become the missing man during crunch time.
Lastly, Alabama’s ability to play fast and has carried the team thus far, but Oats’ ability to fine tune the Xs and Os will factor hugely moving forward. Alabama’s offense affords players the freedom to create but does very little in terms of creating shot opportunities off of screens and curls.
In other words, Alabama gets shots because the players are great freelancers. As the season has progressed though, players seem to be more comfortable with the offense, which flows unabated so long as the Tide are not overdribbling and losing the ball out-of-bounds. Though screens are almost negligible and shot selection can be iffy, Alabama still leads the conference in points per game and can score at will when Lewis is lowering his shoulder past defenders and Petty is sticking 3s. Defensively, the Tide have tightened the screws but need 5 guys collapsing to the ball as it caroms off the glass.
Hopefully, the Tide can shore up these issues and continue its winning ways.
Only the NCAA Tournament depends on it.