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March 2, 2013

HURT: Alabama so close, yet so far away

Saturday afternoon showed how close Alabama basketball is to the top of the Southeastern Conference - and how far away.

Close came with roughly 12 minutes to play at the O'Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla.

In a game that could have put Alabama squarely in control of the SEC race, the Crimson Tide had an eight-point lead and the momentum.

Far away? That was those final 12 minutes.

Understand that there is no disgrace in losing to Florida in Gainesville.

No visitor has won there this season, and, quite possibly, no visitor could. Not Indiana, not Gonzaga, and certainly not what the rest of the SEC has to offer this season.

But what happened down the stretch Saturday, when Alabama was outscored 27-7, illustrated many of the things the Crimson Tide will need to make that next step, if it is to happen.

The first is maturity. I think Alabama plays hard - a team that didn't play hard would not have the Crimson Tide's defensive statistics. But there is still a lack of composure in road situations.

Four of Alabama's five SEC losses have come when the Crimson Tide had what looked to be a sustainable lead in the second half. To be fair, Alabama did show second-half toughness in road wins at Georgia and Vanderbilt.

The loss at LSU, when a 10-point lead vanished in the final three minutes, was the most notable, but Alabama must maintain mental toughness when the inevitable home-team run occurs.

That may come naturally when this year's sophomore-laden team becomes a junior-laden team with a senior point guard. At some point, the lessons of experience need to pay off.

Winning on the road is tough. Ask Tennessee. Ask Kentucky. Ask LSU. Ask Ole Miss. All had as much on the table as Alabama on Saturday. All played away from home. All of them lost.

The second key for Alabama is an inside offensive presence. JaMychal Green may have frustrated Alabama fans at times, but that didn't mean opposing defenses didn't have to focus on him, often with a double team.

The greatest misconception in determining preseason expectations for this Crimson Tide team was the unfair assumption that Devonta Pollard would seamlessly replace Green.

Dependable inside scoring is a rare commodity in college basketball, but Alabama has a greater dearth at that spot than most teams.

There should be at least six bodies in the center/power forward positions next season - that is assuming Pollard adds strength and settles into what seems to be his natural power forward spot.

Better inside play would automatically enhance the Crimson Tide's perimeter play.

If Alabama can do those things, it can step up a notch and compete for championships.

It can go from being a defensive team that uglies up the game to have a chance to win to one that actually wins in the glare of championship expectations.

Saturday showed that goal is not impossibly distant. But it also showed that Alabama is not there yet.

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



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