Must Win

Is it too early to call Alabama's game against Kentucky at Coleman Coliseum tomorrow a must-win game?

I don't think so.

The Crimson Tide's chances for claiming critical RPI ground are slipping away. Kentucky and next Wednesday's road game at Tennessee are Alabama's final two shots of knocking off teams that rank in the top 50 of the RPI. Alabama's record against the top 50 RPI teams is 1-5 with the lone win coming in game four against Xavier.

So it's clear Alabama, currently No. 31 in the RPI, could use a marquee win on its NCAA tourney resumé.

Kentucky ranks No. 7 in the latest RPI, so a win over the Wildcats -- as long as Alabama won its remaining home games against Auburn and Ole Miss -- would almost assuredly guarantee an at-large berth for Mark Gottfried's club in the NCAA field.

A loss to Tubby Smith's crew would put a severe crimp in Alabama's hopes of extending its streak of NCAA appearances to a school record-tying six in a row. It would drop the Tide to 5-7 in SEC games, meaning Alabama would have to finish 3-1 (with road games still remaining at Tennessee and Mississippi State) just to break even in league play. That would be tough, even though Alabama has won its last two games in Knoxville and two of its last three in Starkville.

The key for the Crimson Tide against Kentucky is to recreate that game-opening magic it had against Florida, meaning it must defend tightly and clean the boards, give good spacing, use good ball movement and go aggressively to the rack on offense.

When you make 10 of 12 shots, as Alabama did at the start of Wednesday's 76-67 loss at Florida, everything looks simpler. After Florida extended its defense, the minutes piled up for Alabama's starters, and working the ball inside became more of a chore, the Gators were able to, as Gottfried said, impose their will on crunch time in the second half.

We have grown accustomed to not knowing what to expect from this mercurial Alabama team. The 13-1 start made qualifying for the NCAAs seem like an afterthought.

Then SEC play began.

Early defensive meltdowns in league play, when streaks like 14-0 by Arkansas and 16-0 by Vanderbilt were not uncommon, gave us a different perspective. Don't forget Georgia scored the first 15 points in an epic comeback win by Alabama that will loom huge if the Crimson Tide sneaks into the NCAAs by the skin of its teeth.

The injuries to Ronald Steele became more magnified with Alabama's performances all over the board. Steele apparently will not regain full health or his previous form this season, and it looks as if the Crimson Tide is on the cusp of defining its new identity with the downsized Steele.

The play of Richard Hendrix and Jermareo Davidson in the paint will be of utmost importance. Kentucky's post defense has been suspect, and on a good day Hendrix and Davidson can make them pay.

That duo must be super aggressive at trying to get to the hole. And when they try to work on the blocks against double teams, there will be open wing men like Alonzo Gee, Mykal Riley, Brandon Hollinger and Steele, who must stroke 3-pointers with some regularity to keep the Kentucky sag from suffocating.

Speaking of Gee, I tend to think his play in the last five games will have a huge bearing on Alabama's postseason fate. The sophomore with the spring in his sneakers re-emerged against Florida with a variety of baseline drives and inside-outside scoring. It was his first 15-point outing in eight games, since he torched Georgia for 21.

Alabama will need his athleticism and versatility if it is to beat Kenutcky today.

The Crimson Tide had Final Four aspirations before this season began. That was before Davidson's off-the-court tragedies and Steele's on-the-court ailments derailed their speeding train.

Will those woes knock Alabama off course for the NCAA bid that was becoming pretty standard for the Gottfried regime?

Only Gottfried and his Crimson Tide can answer that question.

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