With Alabama set to face off against top-seeded UConn this weekend, some fans might wonder how this year’s team even got here. It was less than a month ago that the Crimson Tide ended its season on a skid. Going into the tournament, the team won just two of their last six games, and a 102-88 loss to Florida in the SEC Tournament saw fans lose the optimism they once had.

That all changed however, as wins over Charleston and Grand Canyon saw Alabama get into the Sweet 16 and pitted against one-seed North Carolina. If the road ended there, there would have been no shame in it. The same place that Alabama lost last year, against a one-seed, in a “down year”. But this team showed it was different than the 2023 version.

A 89-87 shock win over the Tarheels highlighted that difference. The Crimson Tide outscored North Carolina by ten in the second half. A legacy performance by Grant Nelson, along with near 20 point games from Mark Sears, Aaron Estrada, and Rylan Griffen, pushed the Crimson Tide to its first elite eight in 20 years.

In front of Alabama was the Clemson Tigers in a rematch of their November encounter. The Tigers won that game in Tuscaloosa, 85-77. It snapped a 19 game home winning streak for Alabama, and revenge was on its mind.

Going into the game, Alabama needed to figure out how to stop the interior presence of PJ Hall and Ian Schieffelin. The two combined for 30 points and got over half the rebounds for Clemson in the November matchup, and really hurt Alabama down the stretch.

Hall and Schieffelin got their points, and definitely had an impact for Clemson. But Hall delt with foul trouble and eventually fouled out with over three minutes left in the game. With him out of the game, Alabama seemed in control of the contest, and a solid defensive effort throughout spurred the team to a 89-82 victory, and a Final Four.

The Clemson game was a masterclass in coaching by Nate Oats. Down a leading scorer in Latrell Wrightsell Jr., Oats and Co. beat Clemson’s zone defense and shot an efficient 46 percent from the floor. Nick Pringle was four-of-six from the floor, and made eight of his 13 free throw attempts. most of his play was done through cuts, and the ability to cut through the Tigers zone and make easy shots forced Clemson to switch things up.

This is when the nation was introduced to Mark Sears once again. After a slow first half, Sears was sitting at just five points, and only made two shots. In the second half, he stepped up once again. With Clemson worried about the interior, Sears was able to step back, WAY back, and stretch the floor.

The senior guard shot exclusively from behind the arc, and hit on six of them. Clemson could not stop him in the second half, and its defense could not adjust in time. Jarin Stevenson was also benefitting from the Clemson adjustments. He had 19 points and was five-of-eight from three, which were mostly wide open shots.

Alabama has needed performances from their bench options, Stevenson included, to get through this tournament. With UConn coming up, and players like Donovan Clingan coming up, it will be a all hands on deck for Alabama in Arizona.

The defense will have to continue, and the adjustments that Nate Oats and his coaching staff have made will have to continue to be made. While UConn is a heavy favorite going into the final weekend of the season, Alabama would not want it any other way. “Ball-and-Oats” works best with free-flowing plays and players, and the Crimson Tide has to play that way come Saturday.