TUSCALOOSA — If happiness was the most visible emotion on the faces of the Alabama basketball players as they left the floor at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville on Saturday, relief was a close second.
Whether they had admitted it to themselves or not, the grind of being the pursued team in the race for the Southeastern Conference championship race took a toll on Alabama. With the exception of a 115-point offensive explosion against Georgia, the Crimson Tide had survived February by grinding out wins.
That’s not a criticism. For many recent Alabama teams, a 5-2 record in February would have been the difference in staying on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble and watching that bubble burst, as it frequently did.
Now, the SEC championship is in hand. The question is whether Alabama (19-6, 14-2) will consider that as a Mission Accomplished moment or take it as a respite from a heavy burden, recognizing there are bigger goals out there: beginning with Tuesday night’s game against Auburn (6 p.m., ESPN2).
The first meeting between the two teams Jan. 9 in Auburn Arena was the most exciting game Alabama has played all season, a 94-90 Crimson Tide victory that was NCAA tournament caliber from both teams. Sharife Cooper, making his Auburn debut, scored 26 points and handed out nine assists. All five Alabama starters scored in double figures.
Auburn (12-13, 6-10) has also had distractions since then, different than Alabama’s. A self-imposed postseason ban may prove to have been the right move when AU’s NCAA infractions case resolves itself, but it makes it hard for a team to play at a high level game-in and game-out when there are no tournament ramifications. As of Sunday, it wasn’t clear if Alabama would face Cooper. The freshman point guard has missed Auburn’s last two games with an ankle injury and might not be available Tuesday. Auburn listed him as doubtful on Monday although Oats said on his Zoom video conference with reports that Alabama would prepare as though Cooper would play.
For Alabama, several of its stars have been struggling offensively. John Petty shot just 13-for-43 from 3-point range in February. Jaden Shackelford was just 7-for-35 over the past month. Herb Jones was 19-for-52 regardless of range. The unexpected offensive heroes against Mississippi State were Jahvon Quinerly and James Rojas.
“A lot of guys didn’t play very well personally on the offensive end tonight, and nobody really cared,” Oats said Saturday. “They were all about winning it, all about their teammates and celebrating with their teammates.”
That’s testament to toughness but as tournament play approaches, Alabama also needs a return to form.
The Auburn game matters because it is the Auburn game. Alabama hasn’t beaten AU twice in a row since it swept the in-state series in 2015. Nothing that happens will alter Alabama’s status as 2021 SEC champions. That doesn’t mean Auburn wouldn’t like to put a little tarnish on the trophy.