These Alabama champions aren't done yet
Memo to all the analysts and experts proclaiming Arkansas the best or hottest or most likely to do damage in March men's basketball team in the Southeastern Conference: Alabama is the 2021 SEC champion. Now and forever.
Hot takes don't mean a thing if you ain't got that ring.
Three days after leaving Fayetteville in a foul mood and giving the surging Hogs hope, the Crimson Tide went to Starkville, got over The Hump and erased all doubt. Alabama 64, Mississippi State 59 made what was already special official. In an unprecedented season of COVID fits and starts, the best team in the SEC - from start to finish - wears crimson. There will be no catching Herb Jones, John Petty, Alex Reese and company in the final week of the regular season, and there should be no doubting them as the postseason looms.
From the first minutes of the conference opener against Ole Miss, when the Tide joined Kentucky as the only SEC programs with at least 800 league wins, this team has proven itself through the grind of 16 league games, winning 14 and losing only twice to ranked teams on the road, with two starts left. Even better, three in-state seniors in Jones, Petty and Reese provided the foundation too tough to crack.
This is significant far beyond the delirious moment. Do you appreciate how hard it is to win a regular-season championship in this league in this sport? This is the eighth time Alabama has done it, the first time in 19 years. The last time it happened, Jones and Petty were 3 years old. Reese was 2. Josh Primo was 9 months shy of being born. Nate Oats was leaving Wisconsin-Whitewater as an assistant to take his first head coaching job - at Romulus High School in Michigan.
To end the drought this season, his second in Tuscaloosa, Oats had to get the better of four coaches who've won the league title themselves. All he's done is go 6-0 against Bruce Pearl, John Calipari, Rick Barnes and Will Wade. One more meeting with Pearl and Auburn comes Tuesday in what will be a raucous Coleman Coliseum, socially distanced and limited attendance be damned.
Consider the implications of that in-state intersection. When's the last time Alabama and Auburn met as the reigning SEC regular-season and tournament champions? That would be never.
Two years ago, one program went to an unprecedented level, Auburn adding exponentially to its SEC Tournament win by becoming the first school in the state to reach the Final Four. The other program took an unconventional step to try to catch up. At the time, no one had a right to expect so much so soon from a coach snatched from the University of Buffalo who was well-respected among his peers but had never spent a day in the Power 5.
Now, two years after introducing Oats, Alabama AD Greg Byrne is celebrating with him, and Byrne should be celebrated for making such a savvy hire. It's what we've come to expect from one of the best athletics directors in the business.
Oats is the sixth Alabama basketball coach to win the SEC in the regular season. Only one of the first five did it more than once, the late, great C.M Newton delivering three straight from 1974 through 1976. For Oats, it's one goal down, another to attack after the final chapters of this season are written.
Because as satisfying as it is to win this conference championship, greater opportunities await. Only two Alabama teams have swept the SEC regular-season and tournament titles: the 1934 Hank Crisp squad and the 1987 Wimp Sanderson edition. Only one Alabama team has earned both SEC titles and then reached the Sweet 16, All-American Derrick McKey leading the way for Sanderson's special 1987 team.
With its unique ability to shoot you down and lock you up, this Alabama team has the talent, the toughness and the experience to do more, to earn another conference crown in Nashville and then go where no Alabama team has gone before. That's right. Don't be afraid to think it or say it. The Final Four.
And why not? This Alabama team already has made one championship memory. History is still out there just down the road.