Alabama basketball has reached an all too familiar crossroads in the month of December. On the horizon awaits two paths. We'll call them Path A and Path B. Path A puts you in a good position for the NCAA Tournament while Path B slams your back against the wall and makes you fight tooth and nail for one of the last tournament spots.

Over the next two weeks, we'll find out which path the Crimson Tide will be travelling down in 2014. The first opportunity to turn down Path A takes place tonight inside Coleman Coliseum against 11th-ranked Wichita State, which might end up being Alabama's toughest opponent of the season.

The Shockers have carried the momentum of April's Final Four appearance into this season by winning the first nine games on its schedule. But this team still remains a bit of an unknown based on its competition, and Vegas agrees. Alabama finds itself as only a 2.5-point underdog, which means there's a great chance for an upset tonight - an upset that this team might absolutely depend on in a few months.

Alabama has reached a point where it needs to capitalize on the opportunities forthcoming before conference play begins. At 5-4, there are plenty of quality losses on the résumé with Oklahoma, Drexel, and Duke (although Duke has slipped outside of the RPI top 50), but this team will need to add quality wins to join the tourney conversation.

No better time to do that than the present. Here's what awaits Alabama:

  • vs Wichita State (9-0, RPI #14)
  • vs Xavier (8-3, RPI #63)
  • at UCLA (9-1, RPI #43)

Finishing this stretch at 2-1 or better would send Alabama down Path A, but anything worse and destiny awaits this team at the end of Path B.

Let me explain why the season rides on this stretch of games.

As great as the SEC has been in college football, it's been almost equally dreadful in basketball the past few seasons. There's nearly no ground to be made up in relation to NCAA Tournament seeding once conference play starts. Look no further than Tuscaloosa for an example of this.

Over the past three seasons, Alabama has won over 30 conference games, which can only be matched by Kentucky and Florida. This hasn't translated to postseason success, however. The Crimson Tide has received only one NCAA Tournament invitation during that time, and it came after the school's worst conference record (9-7 in 2012).

In 2010-11, Alabama finished 12-4 in the SEC, which won the Western Division and was the second-best record behind Florida's 13-3 mark. That earned an NIT 1-seed.

Last season, Alabama ran up a 12-6 record in an expanded conference schedule, which put them in a tie for second in the SEC but yet another NIT 1-seed.

What was the common theme in those two snubs? A lackluster non-conference résumé to point to. Whether fair or not, Alabama can look back at a November loss to St. Peter's in 2010 and consecutive losses to Mercer and Tulane last December as a primary reason this team was left out of the big dance.

Give head coach Anthony Grant credit for putting together one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country this season to try and improve its standing with the tournament selection committee come March, but a couple of wins are absolutely necessary before the calendar turns to 2014. The conference doesn't appear to have improved much this season and that will create the same problems that we've seen in recent years.

If the past has taught us anything, it's that Alabama's lack of top-100 RPI wins paired with a RPI 150+ loss will put the team back into the exact same bubble-bursting scenario with anything other than a conference championship. But that can all change over the next two weeks. Plenty of opportunity awaits, and we'll soon know which path this season is headed down.

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