If you thought it was safe to ignore Alabama sports just because football’s not in season, think again. Alabama basketball has been quietly lurking for much of the year and with SEC leader Florida losing at Missouri last night, the Crimson Tide are now within a game of first place in the loss column. Alabama is one of a few surprise teams that are in position to win championships in the power conferences. But the Tide is the only one that’s also squarely on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament, thanks to a poor non-conference showing. In short, that makes Alabama basketball the most interesting team in the country from now until Selection Sunday. So let’s take a closer took at what the Tide has…
Alabama is heavily oriented to the backcourt. Only four players average more than twenty minutes per game and all are guards. The most significant is Trevor Releford, a 6’0” junior who leads the team in scoring at 14 ppg and does it with efficiency, hitting 47 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three-point range. Releford is supported by Trevor Lacey and Rodney Cooper. Lacey is another good outside shooter, and takes the most three-point shots on the roster. Cooper, a 6’6” sophomore, plays the wing and gets 1 ppg. Levi Randolph, another sophomore is the fourth player in the mix and also plays on the wing.
Individually, there’s nothing wrong with these pieces, although collectively it adds up to a lot of time where there’s only one player on the floor taller than 6’6”. Now there are two caveats to this—the first is that while this arrangement isn’t the norm, it’s not unheard of in an era where true post players are tough to find. Missouri plays a similar finesse style and it hasn’t stopped them from consistently making NCAA Tournaments and competing with top teams, as their win last night over Florida demonstrated.
The other point to make with Alabama is that my 20 minutes per game cutoff is arbitrary. Most of the time it serves a useful enough purpose—if you don’t play half the game you aren’t a prominent piece. But with the case of the Tide, both of their forwards average 19 minutes a night, and I don’t want to get overly rigid with the measuring stick.
But even with those caveats, Alabama doesn’t get much from its forwards. Devonta Pollard is a freshman, Nick Jacobs is a sophomore and they combine for only six rebounds a game. Neither is a consistent scorer, and both top out at 6’8” on the height chart. The teams that use Alabama’s backcourt-heavy formula for success generally have one really good forward—take Missouri’s Laurence Bowers for instance.
Therefore it’s not surprising that Alabama had problems in November and December. Losses to Cincinnati and Virginia Commonwealth were reasonable enough. A loss to Dayton a little less so, and defeats at the hands of Mercer and Tulane positively inexcusable. It was results like those, along with an ugly 49-37 SEC loss at Auburn, that kept the Tide off the NCAA Tournament radar.
But there’s no denying that Alabama has at least found some consistency and they’ve put together a 9-3 record in SEC play. Even as ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has them narrowly missing the NCAAs, the Tide still control their destiny to win the conference championship.
Alabama faces must-win games it’s next three times out. A home date with a terrible Mississippi State team is followed by a road trip to mediocre LSU and then a home game with Auburn. ‘Bama simply must win all three games and push their record to 20-8 overall. Then it’s time to show what they can do with a championship on the line, with a big road game at Florida, then another significant road test at Ole Miss.
If you’re wondering when the last time a school swept the football and basketball national championships in the same academic year, it would be Florida in 2006 football and 2007 hoops, both title-game wins coming over Ohio State. Alabama is still a 200-1 shot to pull off the same feat (could they end up playing Notre Dame in a 5 vs. 12 first-round game?). I don’t think anyone in Tuscaloosa is thinking quite that grandiose, but an unlikely SEC title is actually in the cards, even as the Tide fights for its NCAA life down the stretch.
OTHER UNLIKELY TITLE CONTENDERS
Alabama isn’t the only unexpected team at or near the top of a power conference. In recent weeks, we’ve chronicled Oregon, who holds a one-game lead over Arizona and UCLA in the Pac-12. Or St. Louis, whose win over Virginia Commonwealth last night puts them atop the Atlantic 10 and sets up a showdown date with Butler on Friday. And especially Miami, whose three-game lead on Duke has all but the ACC race to bed.
There’s also Kansas State and Marquette. The Wildcats are a half-game up on Kansas and Oklahoma State in the Big 12 (though the three teams are tied in the loss column). Marquette is locked in a dead heat with Syracuse and Georgetown.
Like Alabama, K-State and MU are both backcourt teams. Kansas State relies almost exclusively on Angel Rodriguez and Rodney McGruder. Their vulnerability up front has shown in two losses to Kansas, the most recent of which saw the Wildcats get pounded 39-20 on the glass. But they’ve shown the consistency their in-state rival hasn’t. Now it’s a question of whether Kansas State can survive a closing stretch that has road trips to Baylor and Oklahoma State over the last week and a half of the regular season.
Marquette’s leading scorer is wingman Vander Blue, and Junior Cadougan runs the offense with skill at the point guard spot. The Golden Eagles have the frontcourt player that ‘Bama lacks in forward Davante Gardner, who averages 12 points/5 rebounds per night. Gardner isn’t spectacular, but at least he prevents defenses from getting too comfortable extending on the perimeter. Marquette also brings a lot of hustle and that shows up statistically in things like guard Trent Lockett chasing down five rebounds a game. MU is in a dead heat with Syracuse and Georgetown. The Golden Eagles have a tough road test at Villanova on Saturday and then have to quickly come home for an ESPN Big Monday battle with Syracuse.
If you’re looking for a longshot to win the national championship, Kansas State is 50-1 and Marquette is currently posted at 100-1.