Florida continues to be the most dominant team in Southeastern Conference basketball this winter, having racked up 11 league triumphs by 14 or more points.
The SEC's second-place team has gone about things differently.
By capitalizing on the close calls, Alabama has slipped past jilted Kentucky and into sole possession of second place with a 9-3 SEC mark. The Crimson Tide are 17-8 overall heading into Wednesday's visit from Mississippi State, which is an excellent opportunity for a sixth win in seven games.
"They're doing what they're supposed to do," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said Monday. "They're taking care of their games at home, and they're winning some games on the road. They're just kind of eking and squeaking them by, but they're winning them."
Alabama is 6-1 this season in SEC games decided by five points or less, with the 54-53 loss at Tennessee on Jan. 26 being the lone close one that got away.
More tight wins will be needed if the Crimson Tide are to notch a second consecutive NCAA tournament bid. Alabama has been on the outside of the various 68-team projections since dropping five games in December, including an inexplicable 66-59 home loss to Mercer.
The nonconference portion was Alabama's downfall two seasons ago, when the Crimson Tide had to settle on a deep NIT run despite going 12-4 in conference play.
"Obviously we had some challenging losses over the nonconference and even in the conference, so the only thing we can take care of is today," Tide coach Anthony Grant said. "Every game we've got to play our best, because we can get beat on any given night. The best advice I got from [former coach] C.M. Newton several years ago was the understanding that those tournaments at the end of the year are invitations and that I can't control how the invitations go out."
Alabama's ugliest loss in league play was a 49-37 setback at Auburn on Feb. 6.
Junior guard Trevor Releford leads the Crimson Tide with 14.4 points a game, while sophomore guards Trevor Lacey and Rodney Cooper average 12 and 10.8. The 6-foot-6 Cooper can play forward as well.
"They have guys who are versatile with Rodney Cooper and [6-8 freshman forward] Devonta Pollard -- those are inside-outside players," Mississippi State's Rick Ray said. "Most guys are so one-dimensional in college basketball these days. They can either dribble or shoot it, but Alabama has a lot of guys who can dribble, shoot and pass, which is what you want from a basketball player."
Said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy: "I think Trevor Releford may be the best point guard in our league. He's making shots now and really makes them go off the dribble."
The Crimson Tide do not possess the SEC's most prolific offense, ranking 11th with 62.4 points per game. They are second behind Florida defensively, yielding just 57.3 points per game.
Though not always the prettiest team to watch, Alabama has a record that continues to become more attractive.
"I think Anthony Grant is as good as it gets, and I think he's built a program there that has the foundation with which you'll have success every single year," South Carolina's Frank Martin said. "I think they're playing their best basketball of the season. Earlier in the year they had a couple of lumps and losses I know he wasn't proud of, but that's what happens when you have a young team. He's playing a bunch of sophomores out there.
"Are they the second-best team in the league? We won't find out for another three weeks, but I wouldn't bet against them."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...
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