Slumping Alabama trying to salvage NCAA spot
Alabama has created a new set of obstacles for itself as it tries to reach the NCAA tournament.
A recent four-game losing streak and an ill-timed slump for star Tony Mitchell have left a Crimson Tide team once ranked as high as No. 11 needing a strong finish to end a six-year NCAA drought.
But the Tide (14-7, 3-4 Southeastern Conference) still has nonconference wins over Wichita State, Purdue, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State after a weak schedule helped send the team to the NIT last year.
''They're in a lot better shape at this point this year than last year,'' said Jerry Palm, who runs collegerpi.com. ''Not even close. Last year it was going to take a miracle to get in the tournament. They had a wretched nonconference schedule, they didn't play very well in it and the league wasn't very good.''
This time, Alabama fell from the Top 25 on Dec. 19 after losing three of four games. Then the Tide went on a five-game win streak and seemed back on track before trouble struck again.
A four-game skid included a lackluster effort against No. 25 Vanderbilt and a loss to South Carolina - the Gamecocks' only SEC win so far - and left the Tide's hopes for its first NCAA tournament berth since 2006 fading. Alabama rebounded with a win over Arkansas last weekend and hosts Mississippi on Saturday.
''We've got nine games left and we're still in control of our destiny,'' forward Andrew Steele said. ''We try to keep that perspective in mind. We can't think too far ahead and we can't look too far back in the past.''
Getting Mitchell going would be a nice start.
Mitchell's scoring average has dipped 2.1 points to 13.1 over the past month. He has made 15 of 50 shots in the last five games, including the first scoreless outing of his career against Vandy.
Leading scorer JaMychal Green came off the bench with a solid 14-point, eight-rebound performance against Arkansas and scored 22 in helping the Tide take No. 1 Kentucky down to the wire at Rupp Arena. But he also has a pair of six-point efforts over the last four games.
Beyond those two and Steele, the Tide is a young team, and it has showed at times.
Coach Anthony Grant said Steele had provided leadership since returning a month ago after getting medically cleared to play following several concussions. But, he said, the Tide needs more consistency in that area.
Freshmen Trevor Lacey, Levi Randolph, Nick Jacobs and Rodney Cooper have started a combined 47 games.
Steele still thinks the Tide has a shot at making a similar run to last year's group, which went 12-4 in SEC games and won nine of 10 during one stretch late in the season, then made the championship game of the NIT.
''I think so, but then I think it's two totally different teams,'' he said. ''Last year's team was a lot more experienced, where we were mostly juniors and seniors. This year half our team is freshmen. I think we can kind of look back on the run that last year's team made, but we can't so much live in the past.''
Palm thinks the Tide can make the NCAA tournament if it fares well in its final five games at Coleman Coliseum, a schedule that includes visits from No. 12 Florida and No. 22 Mississippi State, and takes care of business in road games against Auburn and LSU.
''They've got to build on that'' Arkansas win, he said. ''They're probably another four-game losing streak from sweating out Selection Sunday.''