ATLANTA – Alabama forward Tony Mitchell sat in the locker room after Saturday’s SEC tournament semifinal and calmly made his case for why the Crimson Tide belong in the NCAA tournament.
“Look at where they had us [at the start of the season],” Mitchell said, “and look at us now.”
If only the Tide could have delivered an equally convincing argument on the court.
Kentucky led by as many as 26 points before coasting to a 72-58 triumph over Alabama at the Georgia Dome. Kentucky will play for its 27th SEC tournament title Sunday, while Alabama awaits its postseason fate.
Alabama (21-11) offers the selection committee an interesting question: Does an exceptional league record in one of the six major conferences outweigh a poor non-conference performance?
The Tide got off to a 5-6 start and dropped non-conference games to three teams outside the top 100 in the RPI (Seton Hall, Iowa and Providence). They went winless on a three-game trip to the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands in November. They also have lost to Arkansas and St. Peter’s.
That spotty non-conference resume caused Alabama to enter this semifinal 77th in the RPI. The teams with the worst RPIs ever to get at-large invitations were New Mexico in 1999 (74th) and Air Force in 2004 (70th).
The Tide did turn things around in the second half of the season. Picked before the season to finish third in the lightly regarded SEC West, Alabama instead won the division and posted a 12-4 conference record. Of the 72 teams that have won at least 20 Division I games, Alabama is the only one that had fewer than eight wins in November and December.
Every eligible SEC team with at least 12 conference wins has made the NCAA field since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Of the 68 eligible SEC teams that won 10 or more conference games since 1991-92, only the 2008-09 South Carolina squad failed to reach the NCAA tournament.
Has Alabama done enough to earn a bid?
“That’s not for me to decide,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. “I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish this year. … For our guys to grow up and do that as a team, I think, has been all that I can ask of them.”
Alabama played its way into consideration by adopting the same defense-oriented mentality that helped Grant reach the NCAA tournament twice in his three seasons at VCU. The Tide entered the conference semifinals ranked sixth nationally in scoring defense (58.8) and third in field-goal percentage defense (.380). Alabama had held its opponents to 0.86 points per possession, which is tied for first in the nation.
“I think everybody bought into what Coach said,” Tide guard Trevor Releford said. “I don’t know many coaches who are more competitive than him, the way he wants to win. Once we started listening to him and doing what he asked of us, our whole season changed.”
That defense wasn’t as sharp as usual Saturday. Alabama had allowed only four teams to shoot as much as 45 percent from the floor. Kentucky shot 50 percent overall and went 9-of-20 from 3-point range. The Tide simply don’t have enough offense to win that kind of shootout.
“The first half, I don’t think we played the way we wanted to play on defense as far as contesting shots,” Alabama forward Chris Hines said. “The second half, we did a better job of contesting shots, but they were still hitting shots. It was just their day.”
Kentucky had five players score in double figures and committed just seven turnovers, the lowest number Alabama has forced all season. Kentucky had so much balance that it could survive a second consecutive subpar performance from Terrence Jones, who has scored just seven points in each of his past two games.
The Wildcats’ recent hot streak was best exemplified by senior forward Josh Harrellson, who followed up his 13-point performance Friday against Ole Miss by collecting 14 points and a game-high 10 rebounds against Alabama. Harrellson had scored in double figures just twice in his last 16 regular-season games.
“We would have smacked anybody that we played today, the way we shot the ball,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who argued that both Alabama and Georgia deserve NCAA bids. “It wasn’t just Alabama. We would have beaten just about anybody. So I don’t think that should affect what they do with Alabama.”
Kentucky (24-8) didn’t have any reason for worry until the game’s final minute, when starting guard Doron Lamb injured his left ankle after inadvertently stepping on another player’s foot. Lamb insisted after the game that he would play in Saturday’s final, though his injury looked like the type that could require at least a few days to heal. Lamb was helped to the bench and didn’t put any weight on his left ankle.
“I know my team needs me out there,” said Lamb, who has shot 65 percent and averaged a team-high 17 points in two tournament games.
Kentucky fans will have a nervous night as they hope that Lamb’s ankle heals in time for the championship game.
Of course, Alabama has even more reason to worry.
“I think we’ve done enough, but everybody’s got a different opinion,” Releford said. “We can’t make the choice. We’ve just got to see what the committee thinks. Hopefully, we’re in.”