“Do I think today Alabama deserves to be in the NCAA tournament? Absolutely, just based on their play, OK?” Donovan said after beating his former assistant, Alabama coach Anthony Grant, 61-51 in Saturday’s SEC semifinals. “But I can’t even tell what happened to their team.
“I know December was a brutal month for them, and, you know what? That brutal month of December probably enabled them to finish like they did here during the regular season and here in this conference tournament.”
Problem is, a quarterfinal victory over Tennessee and 24 good minutes against Florida was too little, too late for the Crimson Tide to dig out of the perception hole it dug this season.
Perceptions say Alabama is a mediocre-to-marginally good team in a down SEC. Those perceptions formed in that brutal December, and the Tide didn’t do enough to change them.
That’s why, in all likelihood, Alabama won’t get its name called during today’s NCAA selection show. As of Saturday afternoon, the Tide no longer got its name called in ESPN “bracketologist” Joe Lunardi’s updates.
Alabama began the day in Lunardi’s “first four out” and ended somewhere south of the “next three out,” and Grant gave a terse answer when asked to make a case to the NCAA selection committee.
“I don’t deal in that. I don’t deal with that,” he said. “They’ve got a tough enough job.”
Alabama had to make its case on the court, and finishing fourth in a down year of the SEC wasn’t good enough to overcome a 1-5 record in December.
Losses to Dayton, Mercer and Tulane were particularly damaging.
Virginia Commonwealth has a good reputation after its Final Four run two years ago, but losing by 19 points there didn’t help Alabama’s reputation.
There was missed opportunity in a 58-56 loss at then-No. 17 Cincinnati.
That dreadful stretch came while injured senior leader Andrew Steele was sidelined, but a good, major-conference team should withstand a key player loss in home games against Dayton, Mercer and Tulane.
Alabama later learned to win without Steele, winning three SEC games and one SEC tourney game without him, but he watched in sweats and a protective boot again Saturday. He watched as Florida showed on the court what Donovan tried to spin off it.
Alabama just wasn’t good enough to change perceptions.
The Tide was good enough defensively to build an eight-point lead with 12 minutes left at Florida two weeks ago and good enough to mount a 10-point lead with 16:05 left Saturday. Alabama just wasn’t good enough to keep those leads against a widely recognized elite team.
Florida won those games by 12 and 10 points, respectively, showing that the Gators have that next gear. The Gators have the scoring punch that Alabama lacked all year.
It took inspiring halftime words from Donovan and missed Alabama shots to crank Florida’s scoring punch, but count on Alabama missing shots. Count on Florida to run with those misses, to the tune of a 15-0 run and 29-9 stretch over 13 minutes.
Also count on Florida’s coach to go long and thoughtful in spinning things for his league and, by extension, his former assistant.
“I think what happens, it’s really — it’s a hard thing,” Donovan said. “Our league is very, very good today. Our league might not have been great in November and December.”
The hard thing for Alabama was overcoming perceptions it helped to form in December. The Tide did too little, too late.
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.