The holidays are officially over. Many Americans headed back to work and school this morning with sleepy eyes, coffee breaths and the hopes that St. Nick will get his ass back soon because this 5-day work week is for the birds. But I digress.
One good thing about the end of the holidays is that the college basketball season now heads into overdrive with conference play beginning around the country. And with football coming to a close, it also reminds people that, yes, college basketball is an actual sport, not a figment of their imagination as they drive by the arenas or flip the channels. As a result, attendance at games typically improves and there is wall-to-wall basketball on the tube.
The non-conference schedule did not go well for Alabama. While they did play and lose to five teams currently ranked in the RPI top 50 (per ESPN), the inability to win any of those games has put the team back at square one going into conference play. Alabama has been one of the top three programs in the conference the last three seasons. Only Kentucky and Florida have more conference wins in that span. Bama will need a similar conference outing this season if they are to turn around a season currently sitting at 6-7.
The SEC schedule will start with a program in Vanderbilt that has been a thorn in the side of Bama in recent years. Anthony Grant teams are just 1-3 against the Commodores, with the first win coming last season. Vandy is still in rebuilding mode, but are good enough to come into Coleman and beat a Bama team that continues to struggle offensively and is not quite as strong defensively as past years.
The first three games of conference play will indicate if this Bama team has what it takes to turn around this season. All three are winnable, but Alabama is far from a position in which it can take any team lightly. Doing so could just as easily result in a 1-2 start instead of the very real 3-0 possibility. As I said last week, the next four games (including Robert Morris) would be crucial for this Alabama team's chances at a turnaround.
Vandy could serve as Bama's first RPI 100 win if the Tide can hold serve at home, though, with the Dores sitting at 99 in the RPI, that probably won't last. However, for a Bama team whose best win is Texas Tech (RPI: 122), they need every win they can get going forward. Alabama will be on the road Saturday at Georgia (RPI: 240). Conference road wins are always tough, but that's a must win for Bama due to Georgia's RPI.
As conference play begins, we also begin to see the RPI's for each conference start to shape itself. The SEC is still in decent shape, though the number of top 50 teams has now dropped to three (Florida, Kentucky and Missouri) with Arkansas (56) lurking. Tennessee and LSU sit in the 60s. Tennessee is trying to overcome a bit of a disappointing start, while LSU was in good shape before a home loss to a Rhode Island team that came into that game with an RPI in the 200s. The general consensus is that the SEC still looks pretty strong for five or six teams in the NCAA tournament come March.
The rest of the SEC pans out like this: Ole Miss (88), South Carolina (94), Vandy (99), Alabama (109), Mississippi State (167), Auburn (170), Texas A&M (197), Georgia (240).
Seats are warm in Tuscaloosa, Auburn, College Station and Athens. We know about Bama's struggles already. A&M probably had the worst non-conference loss for the league when they lost by 20 at home to North Texas. For a program that had March success under Billy Gillespie and Mark Turgeon, Kennedy's tenure up to this point has not been viewed positively. Georgia is in a similar boat to Alabama: they haven't lost to anyone particularly bad, but they haven't beaten anyone particularly good either. Barring a turnaround in conference play, this could be the final season in Athens for Mark Fox. Auburn has actually been solid. They do have a home loss to Northwestern State (that's in Louisiana, folks) in which they allowed 111 points, but their other two losses are to RPI top 5 teams, Iowa State and Illinois. They also have a solid home win over Clemson.