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March 16, 2012

HURT: Tide team didn't exceed expectations

People will look at the final 4.7 seconds of the University of Alabama's season closely. Those skilled in basketball forensics will dissect it. More casual basketball fans will debate it. Those who follow the Crimson Tide with a passion will try to digest it over the next few weeks, probably without much success.

It was a tiny sliver of time in which Alabama could have taken another step in the NCAA Tournament - and perhaps another step as a basketball program. But to do that, Alabama would have had to separate that 4.7 seconds of basketball from 800 minutes or so of game time that preceded it, and it couldn't.

In a way, Alabama was fortunate to have a chance at all in those final seconds. Creighton did everything it could to choke the game away at the foul line, missing five out of six attempts -- including two that came as a result of rebounding its own miss at the line -- in the last 33 seconds. But the Bluejays did miss those free throws. They did open the door. But, as Alabama did what it's done ever since December when faced with NCAA-quality opposition and an open door: it stayed on the porch.

Here is a quick synopsis of what happened in the final 8.7 seconds, the point where Josh Jones missed two free throws and gave Alabama a golden opportunity. The Crimson Tide brought the ball up court and Creighton, with the luxury of a foul to give, correctly gave it, fouling Trevor Releford with 4.7 seconds remaining and forcing Alabama to throw the ball in from in front of its own bench. Creighton showed a man-to-man defense coming out of the timeout, but switched quickly into a zone.

That is why Anthony Grant called a time out. Would Alabama have been better off trying to scramble, to find the shooter - Trevor Lacey, Charles Hankerson - in the inevitable creases of that zone? Releford had taken the inbounds and passed to Andrew Steele. Could he have gotten a clear shot, or found a teammate? There is no way to know, because Grant chose to hit the "reset" button. By the time the call was made, and the officials checked the clock, Alabama had 2.4 seconds with which to work.

The intent, according to everyone connected with the play, was to get the ball inside to JaMychal Green. Creighton surrounded Green, though, so the pass went to Releford above the top of the key. The defender, Jones, bumped Releford, denying a drive. Releford shot over the closing Jones - there was contact, but not at the decapitation level required to get a whistle in that sort of end-game scenario - and the ball fell far short of the rim.

And that's the way it has gone for Alabama since the middle of December. Obviously, there were wins since then, 10 of them in SEC play. Some of those wins were close. Some were nice to get - road wins at Arkansas and Auburn, for instance. But none were truly dramatic. So the anti-climax of Friday's game was painful, but not unexpected.

That isn't to say this was a bad year, at least in some ways. Alabama did get back to the NCAA tournament, a program threshold whose importance cannot be overstated. The Crimson Tide did overcome off-the-court adversity. It did maintain its reputation for fierce defense, right up until the end (Creighton scored 21 points under its season average.)

But for most of the season - arguably from the point that it left San Juan in November - it never came up with a magical moment. Alabama fans had to look at the team with grudging admiration, and give Anthony Grant abundant respect for imposing discipline and consistently sticking to a course with a team that was often powered by freshmen and sophomores. But grudging admiration is different than exhilaration, and Alabama never got that exhilarating win. It never surpassed expectation.

So was that the message - possibly subconscious, even for Grant himself - about that final timeout? When chaos - or at least an unexpected defense - showed up in those final seconds, did Grant once again feel like he needed to impose his will, set a new play, rather than relying on the players themselves to take the initiative?

That is going to be the real measure of next year's Crimson Tide, and of the progress of the program. Will the returning players - and that means almost everyone except Green and possibly Tony Mitchell (Grant said Friday that he "did not know" if Mitchell would be back and that there was currently " no timetable" for knowing) mature? Will they be able to handle pressure, whether social or academic or basketball-related?

Will they live up to expectations, and thus be able, when a game is there to be won, to surpass them? This year's team, for all it accomplished - and to reiterate, breaking a six-year NCAA drought is a big accomplishment - never did that. Right down to the final 4.7 seconds.



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