MURPHY: Bama Has Shot at NCAA Tourney

Alabama can make it easy for the NCAA Division I Basketball Committee by winning Sunday at Mississippi State.

Or it can be sweating bullets again on Selection Sunday.

Georgia Tech's win over North Carolina on Thursday night just positioned one more power conference bubble team in a solid position to snare one of the dwindling number of at-large berths.

We thought the Crimson Tide was a goner in 2003, the year it concrete-overshoed its way from No. 1 in the nation to 7-9 in SEC play and a disturbing first-round league tournament exit against Vanderbilt. That Alabama team was bailed out by the nation's No. 1 strength of schedule, despite the shoddy conference record and lame finish.

This team's schedule ranks only in the top 50, and Alabama's up-to-the-minute RPI rating of No. 38 has bubble team written all over it. For what it's worth, Alabama has the highest RPI in the country among teams with losing conference records.

The SEC appears to be in position to pay for its competitive balance, as the "expert prognosticators'' are projecting just four to five berths in the NCAA field for the conference that sent two teams to the Final Four last season and has the highest RPI among conferences right now.

The same experts like eight teams out of the Big East to go dancing, or half of the league. The Big East ranks No. 6 in conference RPI. Should one half of the teams in the No. 6 RPI conference make the field while only one third of the nation's No. 1 conference is getting in?

And to not include a team from the SEC West -- as ESPN ``bracketologist'' Joe Lunardi is currently doing -- would be a travesty. If the SEC gets six teams in, Alabama is a lock right now. If it's five or four, well, the Tide would be in a pickle.

Other factors to consider in Alabama's bid: Ron Steele's series of injuries; the emotional toll taken on senior center Jermareo Davidson, and the near-miss clause.

We know about Steele and Davidson's issues. The near-miss clause can only help if some committee members give weight to what Alabama ALMOST did.

The Crimson Tide held the largest lead of any visitor at Florida's O'Connell Center -- 18 points -- and this was before the Gators had their perfect run in the SEC wiped out and lost some of their focus. Florida's three league losses are all on the road.

The venue where Florida was getting crushed by 20-plus points for large parts of the game -- Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena -- is the same place where an admittedly faulty referee's call in the final minute prevented the Tide from having possession with less than 50 seconds remaining in a tie game.

Had Alabama been able to hold onto its late leads against the Volunteers in both regulation and overtime, it would have been the only team in the country with a road win at Thompson-Boling Arena. Instead, it's a frustrating loss against a team that is now shooting back up the bracket toward a possible national seed.

Alabama's resume', should it lose Sunday and win only once in the SEC Tournament will be right in that final mix of at-large candidates. If the Tide loses at the Hump and again in the first round of the SECs, it seems the NIT would be calling.

Again, Alabama can nix all that talk by snaring a win at State, where it has won in two of its last three appearances.

What are the odds of that?

If you combine the talent of the opponent plus homecourt advantage, you'd have to objectively rank Mississippi State as the third-toughest road venue for the Crimson Tide this season -- behind Florida and Vanderbilt. So that makes Humphrey Coliseum a tougher place to win than Walton Arena and Beard-Eaves Coliseum, where Alabama was wiped by 27 and 21 points, respectively, this year.

Those days of road routs are seemingly in Alabama's rear-view mirror right now.

The Crimson Tide has played well enough to be in position to win in each of its last four SEC road dates, and it went 1-3 in those games against LSU, Ole Miss, Florida and Tennessee.

Mark Gottfried's crew needs to look really good on Sunday if it wants to make what Gottfried calls "The Greatest Show on Earth."


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