Alabama, Kentucky Keep NCAA Tournament Hopes Alive With Crucial Wins

Image credit: Kentucky righthander Sean Harney (Photo courtesy of Kentucky/Sarah Caputi)

HOOVER, Ala. – Alabama and Kentucky both came to the SEC Tournament knowing that they needed at least a couple wins to boost their chances of receiving an NCAA Tournament bid. On Wednesday, they both picked up a win and pushed a little bit closer to the tournament bubble.

Kentucky opened the day with a 3-1 victory against Auburn in an opening round game that had been delayed from Tuesday night. A few hours later, Alabama defeated Arkansas, 4-3, giving the Crimson Tide two wins in as many days in Hoover.

Neither team can view Wednesday’s results as a finished job. Alabama (31-25) is closer to playing its way into regionals thanks to a superior RPI (41), strength of schedule (5) and the simple fact it already has two SEC Tournament wins to its name. Rainy weather has dramatically altered the tournament schedule and Alabama’s game against Arkansas was the lone game originally scheduled for Wednesday to be played so far.

Regardless, both Kentucky and Alabama finished the day in a better position than they began it.

“We’ve got a bunch of guys that just want to keep playing,” Kentucky coach Nick Mingione said. “I’m thankful for them.”

“Obviously a big win for us on so many levels,” Alabama coach Brad Bohannon said. “I’m really happy for our kids and proud of them.”

Kentucky got an excellent start from righthander Sean Harney, who threw seven scoreless innings. He struck out five batters and scattered four hits and a walk to quiet a powerful Auburn offense. Sonny DiChiara hit a long solo home run off Daniel Harper that tied the game in the eighth inning and meant Harney was left with a no decision, but he gave the Wildcats more than a fighting chance Wednesday.

After DiChiara tied the game, Kentucky took the lead back with back-to-back home runs in the ninth inning from Oraj Anu and Adam Fogel. Relief ace Tyler Guilfoil, who got the last out in the eighth inning, finished out the game with a scoreless ninth.

For the third time in six days, Kentucky beat Auburn (37-19), a turn of events that effectively ended the Tigers’ hopes of being a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament and kept the Wildcats’ own tournament hopes alive.

It’s a similar story for Alabama, which has now beaten Arkansas (38-17) three times in seven days. Those losses have kept the Crimson Tide in the hunt for the NCAA Tournament and have left the Razorbacks in a precarious position to host regionals. Arkansas’ RPI is now down to 36, it has a losing record against top-50 RPI opponents (11-12) and last weekend’s series loss denied it the SEC West title. Unless Arkansas is able to rebound from Wednesday’s loss and make its way through the loser’s bracket to the championship game, it’s hard to see what it’s hanging its hat on as a host candidate.

Alabama, meanwhile, has firmly put itself on the tournament bubble. The selection committee may have a challenge separating it from Mississippi. The Rebels finished ahead of the Crimson Tide in the regular season standings and are just ahead in RPI, but Alabama’s conference record is now equal to Ole Miss’ (the selection committee counts conference tournament games in total conference record) and it swept the series in Oxford.

A pair of losses by Alabama to end their stay in Hoover could change the equation again, but for now, the Tide are creeping into the NCAA Tournament picture. It’s the second year in a row that the Tide have used the SEC Tournament to boost their stock. Last year, they played their way in with wins against South Carolina and Tennessee to open the event.

Bohannon said he can’t figure out what has made Alabama so good in Hoover the last two years. For now, they’re willing to ride the wave.

“I wish I knew if there was something different that we were doing in Hoover that we weren’t doing somewhere else,” he said. “We would be doing it in February and March, as well.”

As Alabama and Kentucky look to continue to build their NCAA Tournament cases, they face difficult challenges in the coming days. Kentucky next plays LSU (37-18), which will be playing its first game of the SEC Tournament and is coming off a sweep of Vanderbilt last weekend. Alabama will face the winner of Thursday’s game between Texas A&M and Florida.

But at this time of year, all any team can ask for is a chance. And Alabama and Kentucky on Wednesday earned another one with a pair of big wins.

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