Tournament Uncertainty is Exciting

Now begins the open-ended portion of our show.

As the jump ball goes up on Alabama vs. Kentucky today at the Gaylord Entertainment Center, the Crimson Tide knows it could play anywhere between two and nine games the rest of the season.

In the minds of the players, there's a vast amount of playing time out there to be tapped. They don't see one-and-dones today and next week, they see unlimited variations down court. The knowns of Kentucky, a Tennessee, an LSU or Florida or Arkansas, followed by somebody out there somewhere and so on and so on.

I think that's one of the great joys of the NCAA Tournament, which Alabama -- by almost all accounts -- has accomplished enough to qualify for. The excitement and anticipation of hooking up with who knows who next week in Philadelphia or Greensboro or Salt Lake City is almost half the fun of doing the NCAAs.

First things first for Alabama, which has the unenviable task of taking on Kentucky in the GEC, aka portable Rupp Arena.

I had the good fortune of sitting next to Phillip Pearson and Tom Asbury for the first half of Kentucky-Ole Miss on Thursday, then Mark Gottfried for the second half of that game as the Alabama coaches scouted their next opponent.

The trio was in good spirits, confident the Crimson Tide has its game legs back after clearly showing signs of weariness in the season's last week or so.

Gottfried watched the game as a coach, speculating on matchups and strategies, and also as a fan.

When UK's Patrick Sparks launched about a 25-footer early on the shot clock, Gottfried went "Whooaa!" just like Joe B. in section C. Sparks missed.

When the Tide coach thought a player had gotten away with a charging foul, he uttered, "That's a charge," mildly. He shouted a hello to referee Doug Shows during a timeout.

Of course he's still not happy about the NCAA's favorable eligibility ruling on Kentucky's Randolph Morris, a point he's made on numerous occasions. The NCAA allowed Randolph, who had dealings with a sports agency, to rejoin the Wildcats for conference play. This after Kentucky coach Tubby Smith found the golden fax in his office, a letter in which Randolph states his intention that he only wanted to test the waters for the NBA draft.

Certainly the fact that Randolph went undrafted, as did Gottfried's own Kennedy Winston, had something to do with his availability to return to the Big Blue. Players who didn't sign with agents had the option to withdraw from the draft before the no turning back date a week before the draft. Randolph didn't turn back, but the letter supposedly showed that was his intention. It was a bad precedent setter for the NCAA.

But I digress.

As for the Xs and Os in today's game, Alabama must be prepared for a couple of things. The Wildcats will almost certainly pull a page from the book Defending Ronald Steele and use double teams to keep the heady Tide point guard from mastering the offensive flow.

Also, when big man Jermareo Davidson catches the ball in the post, someone from somewhere will rush swiftly in to trap along with Morris, or whomever is guarding Davidson.

Defeating both strategies will require a skill Alabama has shown only moderate proficiency at: making quick precision passes.

If Steele is trapped out on the perimeter, it is incumbent on the unguarded Tide player to take the pass from Steele and attack against the smaller numbers. Just catching the pass only to wait for Steele to untangle allows the defense to re-set.

The same principle applies to the Davidson double teaming. Jermareo defeated that ploy in Rupp with his greatest one-day show of spin moves, drop steps and up-and-unders of his life, leading to a 28-point explosion. That, however, was back when Morris was still not in top shape.

Davidson can expect the doubles to arrive quicker today, so he must be prepared to penetrate quickly or to find available lanes to hit fellow big man Richard Hendrix. Alabama's wing players must also do a better job of cutting inside than they have lately when Davidson is doubled. Kentucky does a superb job of rotating, so expect a fair number of Tide passes to end up in interceptions.

Alabama has a recent history of power-packed SEC Tournament matchups against Eastern Division power Florida, so this should be another chapter in that vein.

Both Alabama and Kentucky have been given the tentative NCAA Tournament "seal of approval" by a majority of experts, but each would rather not leave itself exposed as the sixth team out of the SEC.

Quarterfinal predictions: Tennessee 86, South Carolina 77; Alabama 70, Kentucky 67; LSU 78, Vanderbilt 73; Arkansas 84, Florida 79.

Editor's Note: Thomas Murphy is the Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Register. He writes a weekly column for BamaMag.com


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