Every football team worth its salt sets pre-season goals concerning conference titles and a possible national title run. After that, the aim is to become bowl eligible, qualifying for that post-season game and extra weeks of football and fun.
In basketball, the chief post-season target is to get to "The Dance." All season long the 100+ Division 1A NCAA teams compete with one goal in mind: making the NCAA Tournament field of 64.
"We just want to get to the tournament," Tide Head Coach Mike Gottfried acknowledged.
Three years ago Gottfried and Alabama found themselves the unwitting "poster child" for weak scheduling. The Tide was young but talented that year. In fact the next season they'd win the SEC's regular-season title. But a soft pre-conference schedule put Bama "on the bubble," which the selection committee seemed to relish bursting, singling the Tide's schedule out in post-selection interviews.
Gottfried learned the lesson.
As SEC champions and tournament runner-ups, Alabama needed no help making the NCAAs the following year. But last season there was no question that tough scheduling choices by Gottfried carried his otherwise disappointing squad to a bid.
Gottfried just hopes the same will hold true this year.
"There are a lot of teams out there like us that are hanging around trying to figure out if we can't or can get in," Gottfried said. "We want to do it."
If the only criterion were strength of schedule, the Tide would be the No. 1 seed. With just four games left in the regular season, Bama's SOS rating is first in the nation.
But obviously your record--and the records of the teams you've played during the season--also factors in. So-called RPI takes into account a squad's strength of schedule, its on-the-court record and its ranking.
At this point Alabama's overall record of 13-10 (5-7 in the SEC) is not much to brag about. But a strong RPI rating of 23rd in the nation keeps the Tide's post-season hopes alive.
"We really needed (Saturday's game)," Winston said. "And the win was against a good team. It will definitely boost us when it comes time to pick for the tournament. That was a good team we beat (Saturday). We needed to start playing well, and that was the way to start."
If the season ended today, Bama would probably slip into the tournament. But four games remain to be played, two (Mississippi and Mississippi State) at home and two (Auburn and Arkansas) on the road. It's impossible to say for sure, but most believe three more wins would make the Tide a lock for the NCAAs, especially if Bama can play at least decently in the SEC tournament.
On the other hand, if the Tide wins two or less, then it will need a strong showing in the league tourney to ensure an NCAA bid.
Alabama must literally approach the situation one game at a time, and next up is Auburn this Tuesday on the road. The Tigers are talented but have underachieved for most of the season. They're also hoping against hope for their name to be called on selection day, and their players know that a home win over Bama is a virtual must.
"It's a short turnaround for both Auburn and us," Gottfried said. "We both played (games Saturday). We've got to travel down there and have a great effort. We'll see how we do over there."
Mississippi at home is a game the Tide should win, and Arkansas should be a winnable contest as well. But even if the Razorbacks aren't that talented this year, every SEC team is tough at home.
On the other hand if a tournament bid comes down to Bama beating the talented MSU Bulldogs a second time in the season finale' in Tuscaloosa, then things will get interesting. At this point it's all about victories. And ideally Alabama must find a way to win on the road.
"You've got to have wins, and wins on the road as well," Gottfried said.
With strength of schedule and RPI becoming so important to the selection committee, fans are looking closely at the recent numbers. In fact in the past essentially every team with an RPI rating of 30 or higher has gotten into the tournament, but other points factor in as well.
The various league coaches argue that top-to-bottom the SEC is the strongest conference in the country, but this is not a particularly good year for individual conference schools. Only MSU, Kentucky, South Carolina and LSU were ranked last week, with the Gamecocks and Bengal Tigers at the bottom of the polls.
All things being equal, the selection committee has seemed reluctant to extend bids to more than six teams from a given conference. Seven will be a stretch, especially when only the Bulldogs and Wildcats are making much noise nationally.
If you assume that Mississippi State (21-2), Kentucky (19-4), Florida (15-8) and South Carolina (20-6) are essentially locks, that leaves Alabama, LSU and Vanderbilt fighting for two slots. Though obviously seven SEC bids would solve the "problem."
Alabama barely wins the RPI battle at 23rd to Vanderbilt's 24th and LSU's 25th. But the Tide was swept in two games this year by LSU, and of course the Commodores won the single meeting in Tuscaloosa.