By Chris DePew
Feb. 16, 2016
March in Tuscaloosa used to mean more than spring football.
When the NCAA tournament expanded in 1975 to include at-large teams for the first time, the Alabama Crimson Tide snagged a bid and started making itself at home. Bama returned the next spring and after a few down years began a long run of success in the 80s and early 90s under Wimp Sanderson. Out of 40 tournaments in the NCAA’s “open” era, Alabama has made the field 20 times.
That well has gone dry over the past decade. The Tide has missed eight of the last nine NCAA tournaments. The exception was a joyless slog to a one-and-done appearance in 2012, when Alabama fell out of the Top 25 before Christmas and endured a rash of mid-season suspensions before rallying for its only bid of the Anthony Grant era.
Avery Johnson arrived last spring with big dreams of Final Fours and matching the legacy of Duke basketball. Alabama fans quickly warmed up to their new coach but filed his dreams in a back drawer labeled “someday”. First the Crimson Tide would need to work its way back into the big dance, and with a dearth of returning star power and a modest recruiting class that ultimately didn’t include any out-of-state players, it seemed like even that was an unrealistic dream in the short-term.
The computers picked up on Alabama first, thanks to Thanksgiving tournament upsets of Wichita State and Notre Dame, followed by an ugly win at better-than-expected Clemson. Most humans expected the Tide to fade away as injuries and the league schedule took a toll, and they seemed justified after a 1-5 SEC start brightened only by an upset of then-unbeaten South Carolina. Bama slowly righted the ship with too-close-for-comfort wins over Tennessee, Mississippi State and Missouri, then broke out last week by downing Texas A&M and then snapping a long losing streak at Florida.
Now Bama sits at 15-9 with a golden opportunity to clinch a bid. It should be solidly favored in its three remaining home games and likely should get a winnable game to open the SEC tournament. If it somehow steals a win at LSU, Kentucky or Georgia, it feels safe to forecast a high Tide in March once more.
Game of the week: No. 14 Kentucky (19-6, 9-3 SEC) at Texas A&M (18-7, 7-5), 5:30 p.m. Central Saturday, ESPN. It may have happened hundreds of miles away, but John Calipari’s quick ejection and nuclear meltdown Saturday at South Carolina was the Shot Heard Round The Commonwealth. It also galvanized the sometimes-shaky Wildcats, propelling them to an 89-62 victory that may go down as the turning point in the conference race. Conspiracy theories are already sprouting like button mushrooms claiming that this was stagecraft on Calipari’s part to force his young team to grow up in a hostile environment, but planned or not it resulted in Kentucky’s best win since downing Duke back in November. Saturday is another chance to prove this is a far different team than the one that blew second-half leads at Auburn and Tennessee.
The Aggies’ wild collapse after a 17-2 start is even more puzzling when considering their roster. A&M starts four senior guards who have been through the growing pains of the switch to the SEC, from back-to-back 18-win seasons as conference also-rans to last year’s tie for third and near-miss of the NCAA tournament. But the Aggies seem to have lost their way on defense and become careless with turnovers despite a wealth of capable ball handlers. The Kentucky game shouldn’t make or break A&M’s tournament hopes, but it should show whether it can expect to do more than fill a bracket line in March.
Auburn at Arkansas, 6 p.m., SEC Network
Alabama at LSU, 8 p.m., SEC Network
Tennessee at No. 14 Kentucky, 6 p.m., ESPN
Florida at South Carolina, 11 a.m., SEC Network
Georgia at Vanderbilt, 11 a.m., ESPN2
Mississippi State at Alabama, 1:30 p.m., SEC Network
Ole Miss at Auburn, 4 p.m., SEC Network
LSU at Tennessee, 4:30 p.m., ESPNU
Missouri at Arkansas, 6:30 p.m., SEC Network
- Kentucky – Jamal Murray didn’t slow down after his 35-point outburst against Florida on Feb. 6. The freshman guard dropped 24 points on Georgia while going 6-for-10 from 3-point range and scored 25 at South Carolina. The 85 points in a three-game stretch is a school record for a freshman.
- South Carolina – The Gamecocks are the national leaders in attempting free throws and that was true again versus Kentucky (22-for-31). What doomed USC was its abysmal 32.7 percent shooting from the field. The Cocks had almost as many turnovers (16) as field goals (18)
- LSU – Foul trouble has bitten lots of teams at South Carolina and the Tigers were no different last Wednesday. Craig Victor and Tim Quarterman combined for just 13 points before fouling out, and Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby had four fouls each. By contrast, no Tiger had more than three fouls Saturday against Texas A&M.
- Texas A&M – Senior point guard Anthony Collins had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week. Despite being a 93 percent free throw shooter, he missed twice with under three seconds left in a one-point loss at Alabama, then had to leave the LSU game after five minutes with a stomach bug on a day the Aggies committed 19 turnovers.
- Alabama – Shannon Hale returned to action after missing two games, and twice came off the bench to score 10 points in upsets of Texas A&M and Florida. It seems more likely than not he should be able to start after logging 25 minutes in Gainesville, but in his last game against LSU he was held to seven points on 2-for-10 shooting.
- Florida – KeVaughn Allen went 5-for-12 from the floor against Alabama – and that was the best shooting performance by any Gator in an ugly 61-55 loss. Fellow guard Chris Chiozza was 3-for-12, the starting frontcourt went a combined 5-for-22 and the bench players finished 5-for-17. Worse, the Gators were a paltry 3-for-21 from 3-point range.
- Vanderbilt – The best the Commodores could do last week was not embarrass themselves against Missouri or Auburn, and they passed that test. Assuming they survive a trap game in Starkville, Saturday offers the next chance to build on their tournament resume when young Georgia visits for a late-morning tip at Memorial Gymnasium.
- Georgia – Bulldogs fans are familiar with hard losses against Kentucky, but last week’s 34-point blowout was UGA’s worst against the Cats since 1959. The 48 points was clearly an aberration, but Georgia has been held under 70 points in its last four games, despite winning three of them.
- Ole Miss – Sharing is caring, and the Rebels figured out how to do more than rely on Stefan Moody in their win over Arkansas. Five players scored in double figures for Ole Miss, and while Moody led the way with 17, Andy Kennedy had to be encouraged by Sebastian Saiz’s 11 points in just his second game back from eye surgery.
- Mississippi State – The Bulldogs have been threatening to break through for weeks, and it finally happened in last Tuesday’s 78-46 beatdown of Arkansas. Gavin Ware piled up 21 points and was one of three MSU players with 10 rebounds. But State went cold in a 66-57 home loss to Georgia that kicked off a string of five consecutive games against teams vying for NCAA bids.
- Arkansas – The Hogs routinely get roasted away from Bud Walton Arena, losing 10 of their 11 games away from their home gym. But Arkansas closes with four of its last six games at home, with prime get-well opportunities this week against Auburn and Mizzou. LSU and South Carolina could see their title dreams crash and burn in the Ozarks.
- Tennessee – The Vols’ lack of height and experience caught up to them in the most unlikely place – Mizzou Arena. Minivan-driving sitcom dad Ryan Rosburg went 8-for-9 from the floor for 21 points and freshman forward Kevin Puryear added 17 as Missouri pulled out a 75-64 upset. Tennessee meanwhile went uncharacteristically cold from the line, hitting just 14 of their 24 shots and missing three times on the front end of one-and-one trips.
- Missouri – Saturday’s game against UT was dedicated to Rhyan Loos, the five-year-old daughter of Mizzou assistant Brad Loos. Rhyan was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma last fall. The “Rally for Rhyan” game drew a season-high 10,536 fans and raised over $50,000 for pediatric cancer research. To top it off, the Tigers snapped a nine-game losing streak.
- Auburn – In three games since cutting ties with point guard Kareem Canty, the Tigers have scored 55, 45 and 57 points. Newly-minted point forward Cinmeon Bowers struggled last week, turning the ball over six times each in losses to UT and Vandy.
Follow Chris DePew on Twitter @TideFansChris
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