Brackets are set, office pools are buzzing, and Alabama has an eye on a historic race.
The Crimson Tide has never played in a Final Four and a many experts think it is the year. All they have to do is win four games in a row, right?
It’s a minefield and there’s a reason the NCAA basketball tournament is the toughest championship to win.
Let’s take a look at what Alabama needs to do to make some noise after 17 very quiet years since playing in the 2004 Elite Eight.
Round 1: Iona College
Legendary Coach Jim Valvano told a story about recruiting while he was head coach of Iona in the late 1970s. It was a rookie, with Jimmy V posing as Iona College and the kid telling his mom this guy owns a college. That’s roughly the extent of my knowledge of Iona this week.
That and the fact that they now have another Italian-American coach with a great personality. Rick Pitino is in his first season back in college after coaching pros in Greece and is back in the tournament. Of the 15 seeds, Alabama gets the one with a Hall of Fame coach who has led two different programs at the national championships.
Iona is only 12-5 years old as a month and a half went by without a game due to COVID-19 issues. The Gaels are on a six-game winning streak after winning the MAAC conference title.
The level of competition is not easy to compare to the Alabama schedule. Iona played a Quad 1 game, an 86-64 season opener loss to Seton Hall with no Quad 2 game. The Tide, meanwhile, has 12 games in Quad 1 (with an 8-4 record). ) and 10 others in Quad 2 (with a 9-1 record).
Only eight seeds of 15 have ever beaten a No.2 seed and the odds are long for the No.9 in this one.
Tour 2: Maryland or UConn
Blood turns blue for Monday’s potential game with the progression of the Maryland / UConn survivor. And these two have decent rankings to enter the tournament.
In fact, UConn (15-7) is the No. 7 highest seeded seed in the KenPom Ranking (No. 16) and Maryland is the best 10 seeds (No. 31). Alabama are the No.8 team in KenPom’s measure, not the kind of split you’d expect for a No.2 seed in the second round.
Alabama coach Nate Oats knows UConn coach Danny Hurley very well, having coached with his brother Bobby in Buffalo. He has an NBA guard in James Bouknight (19.9 points per game) and enjoyed a five-game winning streak until Creighton snapped him in the Big East tournament.
Maryland is 16-13 leaving the Big Ten stacked with losses in three of the last four games. The Terps have former Alabama forward Galin Smith who transferred after last season. He is averaging 3.8 points and 2.4 rebounds playing 14.1 minutes per game.
The Terps play more of the Alabama style of basketball with heavy lineups and a taste for 3-point shots.
Sweet 16: Texas, BYU and some traditional powers
First, let’s mention there’s an involved play-in game featuring 11-time champion UCLA and traditional Michigan state power in March to claim the 11 seeds in that region. .
It would take a less than likely run, but an Oats game against Michigan State in the round of 16 would have a bit of symmetry for Oats. As a high school coach in suburban Detroit, Oats had a close relationship with the Spartans and coach Tom Izzo. That said, they would have to beat the Bruins, then 6-seeded BYU and No.3-seeded Texas to get that far.
BYU scared No.1 Gonzaga in the WCC title game and Texas have a five-game winning streak and two wins against Kansas. BYU is 20-6 with three of those losses to Gonzaga and just two wins against the top 50 teams in the NET table. The Longhorns haven’t lost to anyone ranked below 36th in the NET, so they saw the best competition in the Big 12 with 14 Quad 1 games.
Any of these teams could come as a surprise any night, but none have won a recent victory over a top opponent. Texas were a dark horse’s choice to make the Final Four for that region and would be a dangerous team to face the second weekend.
Elite 8: Michigan, Colorado, Florida State… LSU?
Round 4 against LSU? It’s possible, but it would take some upheaval with the Tigers in the 8-9 game fueling Michigan’s path to the No. 1 seed. The Tigers are talented for the NBA and can hang out with anyone for a second round game the Wolverines can’t get excited about.
Let’s talk about Michigan. The Wolverines went from unranked to No.2 in early March with winning streaks of 11 and seven games respectively. Playing by far the best conference of 2020-21, the Wolverines have lost just four games.
They also feature a very different range from Alabama with considerable size. That includes 7-foot-1 (14.2 points per game, 7.6 rpm) freshman Hunter Dickerson, but there’s an injury issue that tempers expectations. Senior forward Isaiah Livers, the second-highest scorer, is currently out with a foot injury and it’s unclear when or if he’ll be back.
An Alabama-Michigan reunion would be a fascinating showdown of contrasting styles and makeup, but that would only matter if the stocking held up. The No. 4 seed Florida State was once among the hottest teams in the country at 14-3 before losing three of the tournament’s last five games.
Colorado is the No. 5 seed with its three Quad 1 wins over the same USC team. He lost to Tennessee in December and is 7-1 in Quad 2 games.
Conclusion: who knows?
This is the most unique NCAA tournament in history and the COVID-19 variable can change any of these scenarios in an instant. Nothing is guaranteed in any tournament, let alone under these conditions.
If Alabama were to navigate all of this in the Eastern Region, the little school big bully would most likely wait in the Final Four. Gonzaga (26-0) is aiming to be the first undefeated National Champion since 1976 and is the favorite to complete that task, but that discussion is (potentially) for another day when it comes to Alabama.
It all starts Saturday afternoon against a Hall of Fame coach in the legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse for a Crimson Tide team with high expectations for a long stay in Indianapolis.