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March 16, 2013

HURT: Alabama needs to get off the plateau

The fact the University of Alabama basketball team's loss to Florida in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday followed an identical script to the loss two weeks earlier in Gainesville, Fla., was surprising only in its inevitability.

In other words, Alabama is a team that both succeeds and is ultimately limited by its defense-first mentality, its lack of consistent offense and, at least for this season, by a short roster that has dwindled, at season's end, to eight players.

This is a team that lives on a plateau. It is not a bottom-feeder lying wrecked in a ditch, despite the frustration felt by many Crimson Tide fans. This season wasn't a train wreck like Auburn's or South Carolina's or Mississippi State's. It is fair to point out the last two of those three programs have first-year head coaches.

On that dull and unscenic plateau, Alabama is capable of some decent wins, and it got some this season - two over Tennessee, one over Kentucky with Nerlens Noel and a neutral-court win over Villanova. But getting off the plateau and climbing even a little way up the mountain seems to be beyond Alabama, and that isn't a condition that has been entirely limited to this season (a win over Creighton last year would have done wonders).

It is grimly telling that Florida could close with a 27-7 run in Gainesville and follow that up with a 34-14 finish in similar circumstances Saturday.

This Alabama team seems incapable of finding a way to survive such runs, from taking a 10-0 or 12-2 shot from a really good team like Florida, hanging on and coming up with a counterpunch. Instead, it takes a TKO, over and over. It isn't a question of not trying - the only two halves of the SEC season when effort and concentration seemed lacking were the second half on the road at Auburn and a listless first 30 minutes at Ole Miss.

But at the same time, there were few transcendent moments and now the season, except for an NIT appearance, is done. It might show more decency to save that proclamation until the inevitable Crimson Tide disappointment at not hearing its name called on the NCAA selection show, but there is nothing in the UA resume that makes that verdict uncertain.

How can Alabama get off that plateau next year? There are three simple answers. First, accept that there is no difference - none - in the "nonconference schedule" and the "SEC schedule." The SEC season is nothing more than 18 games of jockeying for seeding in a postseason league tournament. There is no intrinsic value in finishing "tied for second" in the league. Ask Missouri, which finished sixth, lost its second tournament game and will still play in the NCAA tournament while Alabama sits home. The Crimson Tide needs to play that way from Nov. 1 and, just as importantly, schedule that way.

Second, there is nothing wrong with playing an eight-man rotation, but it needs to be the best eight out of 12 or 13 candidates, not the last eight standing.

Third, there needs to be a sign that experience has taught lessons, not merely provided an unchangeable blueprint for falling just short in the way Saturday seemed to suggest.

Alabama has to get off the plateau next year. That doesn't mean it has to reach the mountaintop, but it must climb in an upward direction. Anthony Grant, having shown he can reach the current level, deserves the chance to elevate his program next year. But with all due credit for not being a program in the ditch, it is also time for Alabama to get off its frustrating plateau.

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

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