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Jacksonville State head coach Ray Harper has won 67 games in three years coaching the Gamecocks. (Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

Does Alabama want to compete for national championships in men's basketball? Does Alabama want to go back to competing for a league tournament crown?

Does Alabama want to beat Bruce Pearl?

Well, there's a guy who's about a two-hour drive West who's done all that.

Ray Harper, 57, just wrapped up his third year at Jacksonville State, and he's the best coach in Alabama. Bar none. Yes, I know how good Pearl is. Harper is better.

At Kentucky Wesleyan, his alma mater, Harper won a pair of Division II national titles and finished runner-up four other times. In three years at Oklahoma City, he won two NAIA championships and was runner-up once.

He left OCU in 2008 for an assistant coaching job at Western Kentucky before being promoted to head coach midway through the 2011-12 season. He won the Sun Belt Conference tournament that year and the next.

When he came to Jacksonville State in 2016, he took over a basketball program at what's considered a big football school. JSU wasn't winning, and people weren't coming to see the team play. (Sound familiar, Alabama?)

He won the conference tournament his first year. This year, the Gamecocks won at least 20 games for the third straight year and finished fifth out of 12 Ohio Valley Conference schools in home basketball attendance — despite having the smallest arena in the league.

Maybe best of all, nobody has accused Harper's players of lagging their way through a game. Alabama couldn't say that this season.

Alabama should know about Harper already. The Crimson Tide played JSU in a closed scrimmage last fall. Stats are kept, but they're not supposed to be released. It happened anyway and showed JSU pounded Alabama 92-66.

Anyway, getting back to Pearl, how has Alabama done lately against him?

Johnson was let go this weekend after going 3-6 against Pearl's Auburn teams, even though that record certainly is no shame.

Pearl is the best on-court coach in the Southeastern Conference. Better than John Calipari at Kentucky. Better than Rick Barnes at Tennessee.

If an Alabama coach wants to win in this league (and survive in this state), he has to do something about Pearl. Whoever Alabama hires must figure out how to beat him.

Harper knows all about that.

He and Pearl coached against each other in Division II during 1996-2001 when Harper was at Kentucky Wesleyan and Pearl was at Southern Indiana.

Harper went 13-3.

You can't explain that record away by saying, "Well, I bet Kentucky Wesleyan already was dominating the series." Actually, Pearl had won six of the previous eight before Kentucky Wesleyan hired Harper.

You can't say, "Well, I bet Southern Indiana had a down swing, and Harper just took advantage."

During one four-season stretch, Pearl lost only 22 games — and 12 came to Harper. In 1999, Pearl went 0-4 against Harper and 26-2 against everyone else. In 2001, Pearl was 0-3 against Harper and 25-1 against everyone else.

No wonder Auburn won't return Jacksonville State's calls asking to schedule a game.

Even with all that, Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne hasn't called JSU about talking to Harper. He isn't going to, either.

There are two problems with Harper — he isn't the bigtime college coach that Alabama believes it can get, and there was an NCAA investigation of the Kentucky Wesleyan compliance department when he was there.

As for the first issue, this isn't football. Alabama isn't an eye-catching name in basketball.

Alabama can't go to, say, former Florida coach Billy Donovan — now coaching the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder — and unload a dump truck of money to get him to come to Tuscaloosa.

As for the second issue, Byrne said Monday he doesn't want a coach with any NCAA history. When Harper was at Kentucky Wesleyan, the NCAA penalized the school after its investigation uncovered eligibility issues involving 45 athletes in eight sports. The compliance department certified them as eligible even though they weren't. Two played for Harper, and the NCAA vacated one of his national runner-up finishes. It was a compliance problem, but the stain still sticks to everyone there, including Harper.

At Western Kentucky, he resigned in 2016 after three of his players were suspended by the university for undisclosed disciplinary violations. Harper's contract was up, too, which made it an easy call for the school.

Western had just closed its season by winning two conference tournament games, including one over top-seeded UAB. WKU won at least 20 games under Harper three times.

Byrne made clear Monday that perception is awfully important to him. Even so, if having the best coach for the job was as important, Harper would be on way to his Tuscaloosa already.

Sports Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.

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