Men’s basketball entering crucial closing stretch

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Men’s basketball entering crucial closing stretch

CW / Hannah Saad

CW / Hannah Saad

CW / Hannah Saad

CW / Hannah Saad

Jack Kennedy | @JWkennedy24, Staff Reporter

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Every February and March for the past four seasons, Alabama men’s basketball fans have become accustomed to having the Crimson Tide fade down the final stretch of the season. As a result of its slow decline, the team has usually ended up on the outside looking in for the NCAA Tournament.

In 2016, Alabama lost four of its final five games entering the postseason. In 2017, it went 4-6 in February and March regular-season games. In 2018, when the Crimson Tide actually made the NCAA Tournament, former guard Collin Sexton had to make a buzzer-beater in the SEC Tournament for Alabama, which had lost its last five regular-season games, to receive an at-large bid. And finally in 2019, the Crimson Tide lost six of its final eight regular-season games and was the second team out of the Big Dance.

Under first-year coach Nate Oats, it seemed as if the season’s trajectory made a turn for the better during its four-game winning streak in January, including a win over then-undefeated No. 11 Auburn.

But since junior forward Herbert Jones underwent surgery for a broken wrist prior to the Arkansas game on Feb. 1, the team’s outlook has looked bleak.

“Our margin for error is really small right now without Herb,” Oats said. “Every little mistake gets magnified. We have to be really on top of it, especially with the defense and the turnovers. We can’t have empty possessions on offense with the turnovers. We can’t have defensive breakdowns when you don’t have Herb to cover them all.”

After the loss at LSU, the narrow home losses to Arkansas and Tennessee last week had a small effect on Alabama’s NCAA resume, as it remained in the low 40s in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings. Both games, however, would have been Quadrant 2 wins as measured by the NET, which would have made Alabama’s margin for error much higher than it currently is. Of the Crimson Tide’s final eight games of the season, three will be Quadrant 1 games, two will be Quadrant 2, and three will be Quadrant 3.

The NET rankings are not gospel, however. In the rankings’ first season last year, North Carolina State ranked No. 33 in the final NET rankings and missed the NCAA Tournament, while St. Johns ranked No. 73 and made it.

After the Crimson Tide’s three-game losing streak, Alabama, currently ranked No. 42 in the NET, appeared in just two of 89 brackets according to BracketMatrix.com, an aggregate bracketology website.

“We respond well to adversity,” redshirt freshman forward Javian Davis said before the Georgia game. “Right now it’s hard, especially being in SEC play, but I feel like we are going to bounce back.”

And they did.

Alabama took a step in the right direction on Saturday night with a 105-102 overtime win over Georgia, which became the Crimson Tide’s best away win according to the NET. It was also the first time this season that Alabama has won after trailing by double digits in the second half.

“[It was] a tough road win,” Oats said. “We needed it bad after giving away two home ones we felt like we should’ve had. Proud of our guys. [We] showed a lot of fight.”

The next two games for the Crimson Tide (13-10 overall, 5-5 SEC) will be Quadrant 1 games: a road trip to No. 11 Auburn on Wednesday and a home game against LSU. With chances at another quality win dwindling, Alabama will need to be nearly perfect should it go 0-2 this week.

“I think [the players’] heads are in the right spot, so now we have to produce,” Oats said.