The season was nearing disaster.
Then came the dawn — except it wasn’t a sudden turn. The Crimson Tide’s rebirth didn’t involve a drastic shift, and two weeks after losing its second-straight game, Alabama’s on the verge of recapturing the early-season magic.
A win today at Ole Miss (17-12, 7-8 SEC) would be its fifth straight to close the regular season. It would likely secure a first-round bye in next week’s SEC tournament and further solidify the program’s first NCAA tournament bid in six seasons.
So what’s the secret to the turnaround from potentially crippling suspensions to the team’s top two scorers?
“They’re completely unselfish,” said Jon Rothstein, a college basketball analyst for CBS. “Sometimes adversity is opportunity. With Tony Mitchell no longer a part of the basketball team, it opens up opportunities for other people to produce.”
The other guys have Alabama (20-9, 9-6) on its longest winning streak since November. Victories averaging 11.5-point margins over Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Auburn have the Tide’s RPI rating in the top 30.
Pending a collapse, that should be strong enough to put coach Anthony Grant’s re-tooled Tide in line for the long-awaited return to the NCAA. Rothstein said he didn’t think it was possible two weeks ago, but said Alabama is “in good shape right now.”
The recent turn for the better took a much different look than the seven-game streak that opened the season and had Alabama ranked as high as 12th.
“It’s interesting when you looked at Alabama early in the season, you saw a team that had three players ― Releford, Mitchell and JaMychal Green,” Rothstein said. “But now here, if you’re an opposing coach, they might be harder to game plan for because they spread things around so much.”
Five different players have led the Tide in scoring in the last five games. JaMychal Green, who returned from suspension two games ago, paced the Wednesday 55-49 over Auburn with 15. Before that, three freshmen and midseason-addition Andrew Steele took turns sparking the offense.
The approach remains on creating defensive chaos and fast-break offense.
From a coaching perspective, Grant said Alabama is now more of a challenge to scout these days.
“Probably because we’ve had a lineup that’s changed,” he said. “Different guys have not been available at different points of the year. Our team has probably changed a little bit, but our team has been pretty consistent here over the last four or five games.”
The top four freshmen who made the 2011 recruiting class one of the best in memory have played huge roles late in their final season.
Rodney Cooper averaged 22.5 points in the last two SEC road games. Classmates Trevor Lacey, Levi Randolph, and Nick Jacobs have also plugged in for big games when needed. Lacey had 18 against Tennessee and Randolph 18-point night against Mississippi State was his first double-figure scoring performance since late January.
“Our young guys have done a really good job of being coachable,” Grant said. “They have humility and understanding that we’ve got to try and figure out what our roles are and what we need to do. Over the course of the season, the biggest thing is more familiarity with what everyone has to do and a confidence. You hope at some point during the course of a season, they start to figure that out. Hopefully our guys have figured that out.”
Still, the situation is far from ideal for Grant’s team.
The season-long suspension Mitchell is serving takes away more than the 13.1 points he averaged. Rothstein noted the absence of a strong offensive rebounding presence on the Alabama roster without the suspended junior.
“We’ve got nothing figured out at this point, individually or collectively. It’s a process, a work in progress every time you step on the practice floor, every time you step in a game. You’re trying to get to that point, but you never arrive.”
Alabama’s hope of a late appearance in the SEC tournament mostly hinges on today’s action. A Tennessee loss to visiting Vanderbilt would make Alabama the No. 4 seed even if the Tide loses at Ole Miss. The Tide holds the tiebreaker over the Vols, which holds an identical 9-6 league record, by way of the 62-50 win in Tuscaloosa.
But if the Vols and Tide win and Kentucky beats Florida on Sunday, a four-way tie exists for second. Each team’s combined record against the others becomes the tiebreaker. Tennessee, in that case, would get the No. 2 seed and bump Alabama down to No. 5 without a bye.