TUSCALOOSA — It’s safe to say Alabama has been one of the country’s unluckiest college basketball teams. There’s even an actual statistical metric that proves it.
More than halfway through Nate Oats’ first season at the helm, the snake-bit Crimson Tide ranks 337 out of 353 Division I teams in terms of KenPom.com’s “luck” index, a statistic formulated as “the deviation in winning percentage between a team’s actual record and their expected record using the correlated gaussian method” according to the website.
Amid an admittedly “frustrating” three-game losing streak in the heart of Southeastern Conference play this season, during which Alabama has lost two straight after mounting double-digit first-half leads, Oats has been at a loss to explain why nothing has seemingly gone his team’s way of late.
“It’s some of the same issues we’ve been having, and I can’t put my finger on it,” Oats said Tuesday following a disappointing 69-68 loss at home to Tennessee. “I don’t have an answer for why we can’t sustain the effort.”
But whatever the measure, there’s little argument that many of Alabama’s struggles this season have often seemed out of its control, be it preseason injuries to players like newcomers Juway Gary and James Rojas or a broken wrist to junior wing Herbert Jones — which is expected to keep him out of action for at least another two weeks — or the NCAA’s refusal to grant transferring guard Jahvon Quinerly’s appeal for immediate playing time.
Not that Oats or anyone else in Tuscaloosa is buying into excuses like that.
“We have to figure out a way to get some wins, we can’t make excuses, a lot of teams are dealing with injuries (right now),” Oats said Tuesday night. “We’ve had a rash of injuries and we’ve just got to figure out ways to win and not make excuses for ourselves.”
That includes not dwelling on unfavorable whistles or lopsided foul/free throw numbers like it experienced Tuesday against the Volunteers.
“It was tough. I feel like every time we were about to get on a run or something, the whistle didn’t go our way tonight,” junior wing John Petty Jr. said Tuesday night.
“But like Coach told us, we’re not going to make that an excuse. We’ve just got to come out and sustain 40 minutes of hard work and hard effort.”
Following its second-straight disappointing defeat despite leading by double digits at home, Alabama (12-10, 4-5 SEC) takes a three-game losing streak into back-to-back road contests at Georgia (12-10, 2-7 SEC) on Saturday and then a mid-week game at rival Auburn (20-2, 7-2 SEC). After that, the Crimson Tide hosts 18th-ranked LSU (17-5, 8-1 SEC) next Saturday before Texas A&M (11-10, 5-4 SEC) comes to Coleman Coliseum.
Outside of the Bulldogs, which boasts a 10-2 home record inside Stegman Coliseum and has one of the best freshmen in college basketball in 6-foot-5 wing Anthony Edwards, Alabama’s following three opponents are all ahead of it in the league standings, which means a seven-game losing streak is not completely out of the realm of possibility given the competition and how the Tide has played of late.
And should that come to pass, it might not matter whether Jones returns in late February or not — the Crimson Tide might no longer be in NCAA Tournament contention anyways.
“Yeah, we needed this one bad,” Oats acknowledged following the Tennessee loss. “We obviously miss Herb (Jones), and if we have any chance of playing in the postseason, we can’t just lose every game that Herb’s out. But it doesn’t get any easier.”
Considered an NCAA bubble team with a four-game win streak following a 77-74 win over Kansas State in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, Alabama has done nothing to help its cause over the past two weeks and has fallen out of contention with a NET ranking of 44 entering the weekend. USA Today’s bracketology lists the Tide as “others considered for at-large bids” but that’s hardly a saving grace.
It’s because of what still lies ahead, and what’s at stake down the stretch, that Alabama needs to steady the ship now and possibly steal a couple of upsets among its final five conference road games, be it Saturday, at Auburn or possibly sweeping the two neighboring Mississippi schools in late February — with or without Jones’ help.
Much like how the Tide is adjusting to life without Jones at the moment, whatever slight chance there is to make the NCAA Tournament in Oats’ first season will likely come down to what happens over the next few weeks with Jones relegated to the bench with a cast on his left wrist.
Because, to paraphrase what Oats said a week ago about players stepping up in Jones’ absence: “There’s not many (other) options.”