Gonzaga. Houston. Tennessee. LSU.
Iona. Missouri. Mississippi State. Georgia.
If one were to take a look at those two lines of games and point out which group was a more difficult foursome of teams, 99 times out of 100 that person would pick the upper line.
For Alabama basketball, though, it has been the exact opposite. Despite racking up big, quality wins over the course of the season, the Crimson Tide has also recorded losses of the same magnitude. On Tuesday night, Alabama fell to an unranked Georgia team that, leading into the game, was 0-6 in SEC play and 5-14 on the season.
The loss was arguably the worst of the Nate Oats era of Alabama basketball, and likely the team's worst loss since the Crimson Tide's opening-round overtime loss to Norfolk State in the 2019 National Invitation Tournament.
After making it to the Sweet 16 last year, most Alabama fans thought the days of multiple bad losses over the course of the season were behind them. Now, the Crimson Tide has several and has lost six of its last 11 games.
A quick look at Alabama's upcoming schedule reveals that things aren't getting easier any time soon. This Saturday, the Crimson Tide will face No. 4 Baylor in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, and will then travel to play No. 1 Auburn. Hosting No. 12 Kentucky concludes the three-game gauntlet, leaving many Crimson Tide fans with a sense of hopelessness.
Oats, however, hasn't given up on his team just yet.
“I’m never gonna give up on a team," Oats said on Tuesday night after the loss to Georgia. "I think we had some heartfelt conversations in the locker room. I think some guys know that stuff needs to be changed. We referenced UCLA losing four straight before they went on a run and were one play away from playing in the national championship game. They lost four games in a row, three in a row to close the regular season and they lost in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament and then they went on a run.
"We’re never gonna stop coaching, stop trying to fix what’s wrong. We’re gonna try to get the right guys on the floor, get them to play the right way. We’ve shown the ability of this team, we’ve shown the capability of this team early in December. We just haven’t played well in January.”
Back in December, Alabama was ranked as high as No. 6 in the AP Top 25 before the streak of losses came pouring in. At the time, the Crimson Tide had back-to-back wins against Gonzaga at the Battle in Seattle and a fully-healthy Houston team.
Those wins now seem like they were ages ago.
Oats and Alabama are more than capable of getting the team back on track, but it's going to take some elbow grease. The Crimson Tide possesses all the right tools it needs, but it's the effort behind those tools that needs to be improved.
Oats is aware that a lack of effort is the primary issue that his team is suffering from right now.
"As a program, we’ve always prided ourselves — going all the way back to when I was a high school coach, at Buffalo and our first couple of years here — I thought we’ve always prided ourselves in being the hardest-playing group on the floor," Oats said. "And we showed it at times tonight, but it’s just not there consistently. We showed it against Missouri at times, especially at the end of the game, but the consistent effort for 40 minutes just hasn’t been there frequent enough this year.”
Just last week, Alabama battled back after being down 14 in both the first and second halves against Missouri. The game prior to that against the then-No. 13 LSU Tigers, the Crimson Tide fought off a late comeback attempt, showing effort in that game as well.
The effort is there for Alabama, but only when the team wants it to be. And there lies the problem. Instead of playing every possession with the maximum effort that Oats tries to drill into their heads, the players instead only display that effort when they need to.
There are certainly some players that are outliers to that. While he might not show up on a stats sheet, James Rojas is one. Britton Johnson, who hadn't seen action other than in the final minutes of a couple of games prior to last week, has also shown that effort. What Charles Bediako showed against even Georgia was also encouraging.
However, Alabama needs that effort from all of its players, particularly its regular starters. While having a bench overflowing with effort is ideal, the starters need to show that same enthusiasm.
It's something that multiple players have admitted that they're aware of, but it just hasn't been there. As frustrating as the losses can be at times for Alabama fans, there's no doubt that no one feels as bad as the players and coaches themselves.
If Oats can find a way to get his players to channel that frustration and turn it into effort on the court, then Alabama might be back in business. However, time is running out for the Crimson Tide as it continues to seek the answer to its effort problem.