Things just never change for the state’s highest-profile college basketball programs. To borrow words from Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs, they seem stuck in neutral.
Neutral for Alabama (20-11) means the NCAA tournament bubble, so it’s another year of hovering among ESPN “Bracketologist” Joe Lunardi’s “last four in” or “first four out” or “next four out.”
There was a time when that required explanation, but Alabama fans know it well.
Neutral for Auburn (9-22) means no shot, short of winning five games in five days to gain a mediocre league’s automatic berth. The Tigers won just three against SEC competition all season.
It’s been 10 years since Auburn made the NCAA tournament and exactly that long since Alabama and Auburn made it in the same year.
Alabama made it just above the Lunardi line a year ago for the Crimson Tide’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2006 but lost its first-round game to Creighton.
A year later, the Tide enters the SEC tournament first among Lunardi’s “next four out” of the NCAA field. The Tide dropped out of the “first four out” despite Trevor Releford’s dramatic 50-footer to beat Georgia on Saturday.
Assuming Lunardi is right -- and he usually is -- that means Alabama needs victories this week in Nashville, Tenn., to sway the NCAA selection committee.
Alabama did finish the regular season with a top four seed and bye to the quarterfinals in the newly expanded, 14-team SEC tourney. If the Tide wins, it’s likely to get a shot at NCAA lock Florida in the semifinals.
Beating Florida does wonders for a team. Kentucky did Saturday and shot up from Lunardi’s “next four out” to first among the “last four in.”
Alabama goes to Nashville with no guarantees, but a semifinal victory over Florida would help. Alabama led Florida by eight points with 12 minutes to go nine days ago but lost 64-52 in Gainesville.
Florida is 5-4 against SEC competition away from home, so there’s hope for Alabama.
Then again, it would be nice to go into the SEC tournament playing for seeding -- just for once? The only lock for Alabama in recent years is Lunardi Watch.
At least Lunardi is watching Alabama. He’ll notice Auburn in the unlikely event of an upset, and the Tigers would have to win a game for the chance to upset anyone on Lunardi’s radar.
It’s wrong to say Auburn is stuck in “neutral.” A program-worst 22 losses, including 15 of the Tigers’ last 16 games, counts as reverse.
That’s saying something for a program that last sniffed the NCAA tournament by barely making the field in 2003. Cries of injustice from TV talkers like Dick Vitale fueled the Tigers’ stunning run to the round of 16, but it’s been a decade.
How long has it been? Legendary-and-late Auburn radio voice Jim Fyffe called Auburn’s last NCAA tournament game two months before he died.
Yes, Auburn won 24 games in 2009, when Korvotney Barber, Rasheem Barrett and Quantez Robertson were seniors. They played three rounds into the NIT, and who knows what might have been, had classmate Josh Dollard played past a promising sophomore season?
But that’s been Auburn’s story for years. Former coach Jeff Lebo and now Tony Barbee must take recruiting risks for the chance to have capable SEC players, and so many never finish their eligibility. Six of the eight high school players Barbee has signed in three years aren’t on the roster.
That’s kept Auburn taking one step back for every step forward, and make that two steps back this season.
Let’s face it. Auburn needs a coach who can recruit the name on the back of the jersey, no matter the name on the front, and such hires are out of Auburn’s reach.
Auburn must get lucky with a young coach, and hiring Lebo from the North Carolina coaching tree didn’t get it done. So far, hiring Barbee from the John Calipari tree has produced a three-year record of 35-58 overall and 12-38 SEC.
Is it time for the next victim? Maybe try the Rick Pitino tree?
Job security for Auburn’s coach once again is in question heading into the SEC tournament. Meanwhile, it’s another Lunardi Watch for Alabama.
The only thing that changes about SEC tournament week is the site.
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star.