| NEWS Why Alabama Basketball Can Make the Sweet 16 - Sports Illustrated


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If the Crimson Tide makes it out of the Spokane regional this weekend, it would be its third Sweet 16 appearance in four seasons.

This is an opinion column.

A lot of people don't know what to do with Alabama basketball while they're filling out their brackets this week, and I can't say I blame them.

After all, look at how this team has played lately. Alabama has lost four of its last six games heading into the NCAA Tournament, has dropped roughly six spots in adjusted efficiency margin in KenPom, has a defensive efficiency rating outside the top-100, and hasn't been hitting shots at a high rate at all as of late.

In all honesty, it sounds like a recipe for an early NCAA Tournament exit. But I'm going to tell you why I think the opposite is true. No, I don't think Alabama is going to win the national championship, but I do believe the Crimson Tide is going to win two games this weekend and make the Sweet 16 for the third time in four seasons.

Let's start with this, I don't think Alabama is playing Sweet 16-level basketball right now. No one with working eyes should. The team has looked disinterested in playing defense for a month now, and with the plethora of injuries it's endured, has had to play starters far too many minutes to the point of looking gassed on the court in multiple different games.

What this team needs is rest, and confidence. And the way Alabama's NCAA Tournament draw has been set up, it has a chance to gain some of both.

Firstly, it's nice that Alabama doesn't have to play until Friday, and it might actually be a silver lining that it lost on Friday night of the SEC Tournament. That's a full week between games, and in total, only one game over the course of nearly two weeks.

With Latrell Wrightsell just recently coming back from his head injury and Rylan Griffen still nursing a calf strain, the added time between games will be huge for getting the team's legs back up underneath them.

“I do like the fact we don’t have to play till Friday. I think we get our legs up under us a little bit more. Obviously, we were trying to win the SEC Tournament, but it might have been a blessing in disguise for an NCAA Tournament run to get our legs a little more rested and not playing till Friday," Oats said. "We haven’t had our full allotment of guys on no minute restrictions since that Texas A&M game when we were playing pretty good basketball. So I think this Friday will be the first time we’ve got everybody healthy, ready to go since that A&M game.”

So getting rested and healthy? Check. That should be a huge weight off the shoulders of Mark Sears and Aaron Estrada, who have had to play otherworldly amounts of minutes over the past month with the various backcourt injuries. The other half of the equation is confidence, and it appears Alabama got the perfect draw in order to boost its confidence level early on in the tournament.

Yes, the Spokane placement is unfortunate for fans, but as a 4-seed, the Crimson Tide is matched up with 13-seed Charleston in the first round.

A lot of people are high on Charleston. The champions of the CAA have won 12 straight basketball games, and are a pretty dynamic offensive team for a mid-major. That may cause some alarm if you're Alabama, given how poorly the Crimson Tide has defended all season.

But the metric I'm looking at here is Charleston's defense. The Cougars have the fifth-worst defensive efficiency of any team in the field, per KenPom, sitting at No. 176 overall. You want to talk about a bad combination? The No. 176 defense going up against the No. 2 offense is exactly that.

Alabama has shot the ball extremely poorly over the last month of the season. Over its last 10 games, the Crimson Tide is shooting right around 33 percent as a team from deep, after shooting upwards of 38 percent for the first 20 games of the season.

If there's one thing this team needs to gain some confidence, it's to see a few shots go in, and this matchup against one of the worst defenses in the entire NCAA Tournament field is one where more than a few shots could fall.

Just look at Alabama's history against mid-major opponents this season. Against Morehead State, a team that made the NCAA Tournament, Alabama scored 105 and made over 40 percent of its threes. Against Indiana State, a very good mid-major who missed the tournament but was on the bubble, Alabama scored 102 and made over 50 percent of its threes.

Against every mid-major opponent Alabama has played this season, its scored at least 89 points. In five of those seven games, Alabama scored 100, and in all seven Alabama shot at least 40 percent from three.

With rested legs and an inferior defense in front of it, there's a perfect opportunity for the Crimson Tide to find its offense again and get hot. But what about the defense?

Normally, Oats says to worry about playing defense and the offense will take care of itself, but that hasn't really worked with this team. In fact, it's been quite the opposite. This team's problem has been they only guard hard when shots are going in, and when things aren't going their way, that effort translates negatively to the defensive end.

If Alabama finally sees some shots go in against an inferior defense, you could very well see a major uptick in effort on the defensive end of the floor. If that happens, Charleston is in trouble, and the Crimson Tide would fairly easily cruise to the second round.

Now the second round is interesting. Alabama could play either 12-seed Grand Canyon, mid-major that's won 14 straight games, or 5-seed Saint Mary's, a methodical, slow-paced team that relies heavily on defense and rebounding.

For this round, I'm looking less at how Alabama matches up with these teams, and more at how difficult it is to prepare for this Crimson Tide team in just one day's time.

Under Oats, Alabama has played in the Round of 32 two times, both against Maryland in 2021 and 2023, respectively. Both times Alabama won big, winning 96-77 in 2021 and 73-51 in 2023.

With an offensive system as high-powered and up-tempo as this one, its nearly impossible to replicate in practice, and even harder to get ready for off the heels of an NCAA Tournament game on a 1-day scout.

"That's why I think they're a tough out in the NCAA Tournament, despite the defensive struggles," ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg said. "You can't prepare for them the second night, in 36 hours, and simulate what they do, even on film. You just can't get a feel for that."

So, let's say Alabama gets rested and healthy over the course of the week, sees some shots fall against a poor defense in the first round, and now that it has some confidence built up, has to play a team who only has one day to prepare for one of the best offenses in the country.

Sounds like a pretty good situation, and it's why I'm picking Alabama to make it out of Spokane and head back to the Sweet 16 for the third time in four seasons.
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