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February 21, 2012

HURT: Tide might still make NCAA Tournament

Once again, an Anthony Grant press conference didn't produce exactly what University of Alabama basketball fans would like to hear.
For at least one more game, the UA team, facing a crucial closing stretch in the Southeastern Conference race, will not be at its potential full strength. That potential strength no longer includes Tony Mitchell, at least not for this season, but it does include JaMychal Green, now back at practice but not, as Grant revealed on Tuesday, fully back in good graces.
Alabama will be a little stronger than it was in Saturday's win over Tennessee, with Nick Jacobs coming back from injury. But Green has been missed, and he'll be missed at Arkansas on Thursday.
The Crimson Tide won't concede, but Fayetteville is a tough place to play - last weekend's blowout loss to Florida was an anomaly - and Green would have helped.
The question now is more mathematical than anything else.
Exactly how much does Alabama, with Green or without him, have to do down the stretch to help itself? Specifically, how much does the Crimson Tide have to accomplish to make it into the NCAA Tournament field.
Alabama finds itself in a situation that is almost entirely opposite of the one that ended in an NCAA near-miss disappointment a year ago.
In 2011, Alabama had placed itself in such a deep hole in November and December, with bad losses and anemic schedule strength, that nothing, not even a 12-4 SEC record, was good enough to fix the damage.
This season, Alabama built a far stronger preseason resume, so much so that even finishing at .500 (8-8) in the SEC will result in a bid thanks to an RPI likely to remain in the Top 40. A .500 record would require a split of the last four games, and it might - not definitely would, but might - be enough. It can be argued that Saturday's home game against Mississippi State is more important than the road trip to Arkansas, although Grant would bristle at such a suggestion.
Earlier in the week, Kentucky coach John Calipari said that the SEC would "definitely" have five teams in the NCAA field (although he added a later caveat, saying "unless something crazy happens"). He didn't name the five, but clearly he meant his own Wildcats team along with Vanderbilt, Florida, Alabama and MSU.
C.M. Newton, the venerable former Alabama coach and Kentucky athletic director, said the same thing about the SEC being a five-bid league on Tuesday. He also hinted that the selection committee could look at Alabama and take the midseason rash of suspensions into account. He didn't mention Green, but it is logical to assume that if Alabama is restored to full strength (again, Mitchell is now out of the equation) and closes impressively, it might get the benefit of the doubt from the selection committee.
To his credit, Grant has not administered discipline with one eye on the schedule. He has done what he has thought best in the long run, even while inflicting some short-term scars.
For Crimson Tide fans, it has to be frustrating that Tuesday's press conference did not bring full closure - but we are almost at the point where the schedule itself will take care of that.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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