Flamboyant Alabama Aiming for Tournament Greatness

First came the seasoned prospects. Cane Ridge (TN) five-star point guard Brandon Miller and an elite recruiting class that ranked in the top five in the nation arrived in Tuscaloosa braced for what promised to be a tough season for the Crimson Tide. Then came the shock victories. Not even the AP voters who voted Alabama to #20, nor the SEC experts who voted them at #5 in the conference expected big, surprising wins over UNC and Houston. And then came the green carpet. The team has 28 wins going into the 64-team playoff tournament, and if their good form continues, they could reach the 30-win mark. Not only is it thanks to a flashy team not without its eccentricities and controversies, but the effective strategies of vetted coach Nate Oats. Here’s a look at the NCAA’s weirdest, flamboyant, winning side looking to make basketball history.

Alabama basketball can be compared to an ancient Greek tragedy. Their seasons were both unbearable and hilarious, comedic and pitiful, funny yet so, so sorrowful. There was the 2021-22 season where despite being nationally ranked for most of the season, they fell early in the SEC tournament against Vanderbilt and lost in the first round of March Madness against Notre Dame. A year earlier, they won the SEC tournament with a worse team but fell in the Sweet Sixteen to UCLA. It’s been like this for years. But, with a reloaded recruiting class and some bright coaching talent, Alabama has broken through pre-season projections to win the SEC Championship title for the second time in three years.

Alabama’s success can be attributed to its usage of the three-pointer. They’ve attempted 949 threes in 32 games, sixth in D1 basketball. That’s good for a 33.9% shooting accuracy, a much flattering 198th. Despite the low shooting percentage, the Crimson Tide has stuck with the three-pointer, even when the shots are not flowing.

“I know we didn't shoot it very well in the first half, we were 2 of 15 from three. Clowney had our only two makes, and he's a confident kid. We tried to pump our guys full of confidence. He continues to shoot even if he's had games where he's gone through a lot of misses. Today, he ends up 3 of 6. Happy as can be for it,” Oats told the press after the SEC tournament semifinal where they fought from behind to beat Missouri. “Mark is struggling to shoot. JQ didn't make any. We're going to pump them full of confidence. Never passing up an open three. In the second half, we ended up 6 of 12 from three. Helped us go from a four-point deficit to where we took the lead, up at 13 one point.”

Alabama is also first in total rebounding and defensive rebounding. Part of it may be their trigger-happy offense, but it’s thanks to the tenacious efforts of Miller (8.1 rpg) and forward Noah Clowney (8.1 rpg).
Oats’ long-range-oriented tactics have come at the perfect time. Miller, a 6’9, 200-pound guard that resembles the power forward of the 2000s and 2010s rather than the point guard of today, is both a penetrator, a slasher, and a presence in the paint at the same time. Miller is 40.5% from three (1st in the SEC) while averaging 19.5 points per game (1st in the SEC). Clowney and Charles Bediako lead the SEC in two-point field-goal percentage (.672), most of which came from put-backs and second-chance shots.
Their defense has also been stellar this season. Alabama allows a 27.9% rate from three, second in the nation and only following Tennessee (25.8%). Teams are also inefficient against Alabama; they shoot 37.5% total, following only Houston and Tennessee in defensive solidity.
Although individual brilliance has defined Alabama’s season; Miller won the SEC Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year Awards and Jahvon Quinerly won the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year Award; Oats has conducted Alabama with a sort of organized chaos. With a fast tempo, shooting reminiscent of Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets, and some very solid defense, Alabama is one of the teams to beat as the postseason edges closer.

Despite the advantages of Oats’ style, it’s gotten ugly at times this season. A regular-season loss against Texas A&M saw them make 7 of 36, and an early-season game against Longwood saw one of the most atrocious shooting performances this season; 3 of 28. Alabama’s commitment to shooting threes is smart sometimes; if it isn't broken, why fix it? But sometimes, the three-pointers do not work. Alabama has never lost a game when it has made 10 or more three-pointers, but it has come close. The semifinal against Missouri saw Alabama shoot 8 for 27 (29.6%). The team was close to dropping a game that seemed in their hands when the game started. The team’s commitment (or stubbornness) to stick with the three-pointer almost cost them the game, but a late surge luckily brought them to the SEC final. But will those late surges fend off elimination when they need it the most?

Brandon Miller will also be influential in whether Alabama can fight off the demons of 2022; he looks like NBA material already and is the main reason Alabama is currently on the cusp of greatness, but how would the Crimson Tide step up if he had an off night.

We saw a sneak peek of what an off night could look like for Miller. In a marquee matchup against Houston, Miller had eight points from 0-8 shooting. Despite that, Clowney scored 16 points, Mark Sears added 11, and Alabama edged past Houston to win 71-65. Alabama has the depth to not only take the load off Miller but to also add another layer of scoring. But, in the random, unfair, come-and-go March Madness, there is no time for rest, and all six games are as important as the last.

We don’t know how Alabama will replace Miller’s scoring if he has an off-day, and we also don’t know how they will shoot from three. All we know is that Alabama shoots threes, gets rebounds, and plays good defense. Everything else remains to be seen as the weirdest team in college basketball aims for gold.