Some historical perspective on what's shaping up to be Alabama’s dual-sport school year for the ages
We’re less than a month from the postseason and Alabama has a stranglehold on the SEC.
Like, the sport that the Crimson Tide made it to the second weekend of the postseason tournament once in the 21st century. The sport that Alabama has never reached the pinnacle or even the step before that (the Final Four). The sport that reminds Alabama every year that it’s a football school. And a women’s gymnastics school.
Never mind the fact that Alabama hasn’t claimed a regular-season SEC title in men’s basketball since the 2001-02 school year. What the Crimson Tide are on the brink of is something that’s more historic than that.
And yeah, football is part of it. Shocking, I know.
If Alabama wins a regular-season SEC title on the hardwood, it’ll join some elite company. It would mark just the third time since the SEC Championship began in football in 1992 that the same school won both the conference title game in football and the regular-season title in basketball in the same school year. One of those teams was 2000-01 Florida. That other team, of course, was 2006-07 Florida, which not only won league titles that historic school year, but also won national titles in each sport.
For now, that’s an extremely high bar to reach to claim the title of best ever football/men’s basketball combo school year. Obviously. That’s at least on the table with the Crimson Tide having already won a football national title and potentially playing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament depending on how things shake out down the stretch.
But even if that doesn’t happen, this is shaping up to be a school year for the ages in Tuscaloosa. At least as it relates to the top 2 revenue sports.
Consider: Since Nick Saban has been Alabama’s football coach, the basketball program has 1 more NCAA Tournament win than your park district squad. That’s right. That 1 NCAA Tournament victory came in 2017-18. And who knows if that would’ve happened had Collin Sexton not gone into the phone booth and put on his cape in Alabama’s all-important first game of the SEC Tournament:
SEXTON FOR THE WIN!
Collin Sexton, who had 27 points, hits this buzzer-beater to give bubble team Alabama a 71-70 win over Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament. pic.twitter.com/jJFakgi34u
— 🏀Jake🏀 (@AlwaysMarch_) March 8, 2018
Go figure that was actually the second-best walk-off winner of that school year for Alabama. A couple of months earlier, of course, 2nd-and-26 happened. Alabama famously made the College Football Playoff after missing out on playing for an SEC championship. But even that year ended with Sexton and Co. getting blown out in the Round of 32 by eventual-national champion Villanova.
If we want to focus strictly on the years that Alabama did win the SEC in football like this year, there are only 4 such instances in which Alabama basketball followed that up by winning a game in the NCAA Tournament.
Let’s run through those:
- FOOTBALL: 12-1, No. 4 in AP after Citrus Bowl win
- BASKETBALL: 5-seed in NCAA Tournament, lost to Oklahoma State in Round 2
- FOOTBALL: 10-2, No. 9 in AP after Sugar Bowl loss
- BASKETBALL: 7-seed in NCAA Tournament, lost to Loyola Marymount in Sweet 16
- FOOTBALL: 9-2-1, No. 7 in AP after Cotton Bowl loss
- BASKETBALL: 4-seed in NCAA Tournament, lost to UNC (with a guy named “Michael Jordan”) in Sweet 16
- FOOTBALL: 11-1, No. 3 in AP after Sugar Bowl win
- BASKETBALL: 6-seed in NCAA Tournament, lost to Indiana in Sweet 16
By the way, that 1975-76 Indiana team was college basketball’s last unbeaten NCAA Tournament champion. On another note, that was nearly a half-century ago.
There’s some bad luck in there with running into juggernauts in the tournament, including facing an emotional Loyola Marymount team shortly after Hank Gathers died. But for the most part, those 4 instances show something that’s been a constant for Alabama hoops. That is, not earning a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Only twice has the program earned better than a No. 4 seed in March (1987 and 2002). Barring a total collapse in the next few weeks, that should happen for the third time.
Speaking of 1986-87, that was 1 of 2 other school years that should probably be mentioned as it relates to best football/basketball combo years at Alabama. The football program didn’t win the SEC, but it finished No. 9 in the AP Poll after a gauntlet stretch spoiled a national championship bid. In basketball, the Crimson Tide earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but like all but 1 squad in Alabama history, it couldn’t get past the Sweet 16.
The year before that in 1985-86 was when Alabama finished No. 13 in the final AP Poll in football 9 (but no SEC title), and then earned a Sweet 16 berth … only to lose to Kentucky for the 4th time that year.
There’s obviously no guarantee that this year’s squad gets past the Sweet 16.
Here’s the kicker, though. Alabama football didn’t have just another solid top-15 finish this school year. It delivered one of the most dominant seasons we’ve seen in the sport’s history en route to a national title. In the years in which Alabama won a national title in football, it only reached the NCAA Tournament twice (2017-18 and 2011-12). In those 2 instances, Alabama wasn’t better than a 9-seed.
That, I can say with total confidence, is changing this year. Nate Oats deserves a world of credit for that, regardless of what happens in the often-wonky NCAA Tournament. An early NCAA Tournament exit won’t necessarily represent how good this high-scoring, lockdown Alabama squad was for the majority of the year. Herb Jones and John Petty might not be as decorated as DeVonta Smith and Mac Jones, but like their fellow class of 2017 signees, they’ve done their part to make 2020-21 historic for all the right reasons.
Time will tell if Alabama can become the first program since 2006-07 Florida to win the SEC Championship in football and then follow it up with a regular-season title in basketball. The 2000-01 Florida squad with Udonis Haslem and Matt Bonner was the only other SEC team to follow a conference title in football with a regular-season title in basketball (since the SEC Championship began in football in 1992). That team, however, couldn’t complete the clean sweep and win the SEC Tournament championship like 2006-07 Florida, which took “clean sweep” to another level.
For all we know, Alabama is on its way to completing the clean sweep in 2020-21. If we’re using 1992-93 as the starting point because of the introduction of the SEC Championship in football, only 3 SEC programs followed up a national title in football with winning an NCAA Tournament game (1998-99 Tennessee, 2006-07 Florida, 2017-18 Alabama). The non-Florida instances both ended with blowout losses in the Round of 32.
That’s why 2020-21 Alabama has a legitimate shot to rank No. 2 among the SEC football/basketball combo seasons we’ve seen in league history. The fickle nature of college basketball suggests it’s not smart to predict NCAA Tournament finishes.
One thing we do know? It’s been a pretty darn good school year down in Tuscaloosa.