The two worst basketball programs in the SEC over the last decade both reside in the state of Alabama. But there’s a major difference between the Auburn Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide.
One is sitting on top of the world and doesn’t care about the past — recent or otherwise — while the other is wallowing in failure and longing for its glory days.
Auburn won the SEC Tournament for the first time in 34 years last weekend. They did it with a 20-point throttling of a very good Tennessee team that could still contend for the national championship. The Tigers will enter the NCAA Tournament on a seven-game winning streak that includes three impressive wins to close the regular season and a four-game run through the SEC Tournament. Two of those wins were against Tennessee, which makes it curious that the Tigers earn a seeding no better than No.5 in the NCAA Tournament.
Nobody at Auburn wants to hear that this is the school’s second NCAA Tournament appearance in the last decade and that the Tigers are still in the middle of the pack (seventh to be exact) in terms of winning percentage in SEC history. What matters is that the Tigers won the SEC regular season last year, the tournament title this year and are in position to make a serious run when March Madness begins this week.
With a new arena, a great fan base and now the success on the court, the outlook has never been more positive for Auburn basketball. Coach Bruce Pearl made the ultimate point when he said the Tigers aren’t just a good team but a good program.
He’s right, and it’s been a long time since that was true.
Meanwhile, Alabama is left again with the distinction of being first among the worst. That’s what the No. 1 seed in the NIT Tournament signifies.
It might be easy for shrug the shoulders and accept that Alabama basketball is back where it belongs. Sort of like Duke football makes a nice bowl game every once in awhile as a diversion until the real fun starts in basketball.
But Alabama basketball has not always been just a way to pass the time until football began again.
The list of most SEC Tournament championships won begins with Kentucky by a wide margin, but Alabama is still second.
The same is true for the best winning percentage in league history, where Alabama trails only Kentucky and is still just ahead of Arkansas, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and LSU.
Even in the postseason, Alabama reached the Sweet 16 seven times between 1975 and 1991. That’s basically every other year for close to two decades.
That’s not a blip on the radar. That’s sustained success.
Before addressing how the program got to this point from there, it’s important to be clear that Alabama has reached the bottom of the SEC.
Seven of the 14 teams made the tournament this year. Arkansas has made three of the last five, Texas A&M has made four tournaments in the last decade, Vanderbilt and Missoiuri have made five, South Carolina was in the Final Four two years ago and Georgia has been to the tournament twice in the last decade but appears to have settled on a big-time coach.
Alabama has been to the NCAA Tournament twice in the last decade but hasn’t made the Sweet 16 in 15 years.
So, how did the program fall behind all 13 challengers in the SEC?
It starts with the fact that Coleman Coliseum is among the three worst arenas in the league. Not only is it old but it is designed in such a way that it appears there was a concerted effort to make sure the fans couldn’t have an impact on the game.
It’s no coincidence that Auburn’s dreadful basketball history changed for the better shortly after the Tigers moved from the worst arena in the league to the one that creates the best home-court advantage in the conference.
Until that problem is solved in Tuscaloosa, there likely won’t be a solution. Avery Johnson has certainly opened himself up for criticism with his ability to motivate and get the best out of his players. But that alone shouldn’t be enough to keep Alabama and its above-average roster out of the NCAA Tournament.
No, the first step in addressing a problem is admitting there is a problem. At Alabama, that problem is the lack of full commitment to winning basketball.
Auburn suffered from the same things for decades. Now, in the glow of the recent championship and with March Madness underway, that seems like a distant memory.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of Sports Drive every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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