A fun Alabama team ran out of gas and it should have learned a frustrating March lesson in the process
Alex Reese went from holding the follow-through pose after draining the biggest shot of his life to holding back tears in a span of roughly 20 minutes.
March giveth, and March taketh away.
That’s sort of like being the team that can’t miss a 3-pointer to being the team that can’t make a free throw 5 days later.
It didn’t matter that Alabama came into Sunday night’s Sweet 16 clash against UCLA as the winners of 8 consecutive games. It still wasn’t enough to take care of the 11-seed Bruins, who had lost 4 consecutive games entering the NCAA Tournament.
March momentum? It’s not really a thing. Go ask Illinois about that. You can be the hottest team in America and still get sent packing for not taking care of the basics.
File that one away for future March runs, Nate Oats.
For Illinois, it was not creating enough in its half-court sets in a stunning Round of 32 loss to Loyola-Chicago. For Alabama, it was a couple of things. Yes, the free-throw shooting was part of that. You can’t shoot 44% from the charity stripe and beat a team that defends like UCLA. Reese’s aforementioned buzzer-beater heroics wouldn’t have been needed had the SEC Player of the Year, Herb Jones, been able to knock down just 1 of his 2 free throws in the final seconds of regulation.
Well, let’s revise that. Reese’s shot would have been the game-winner had Jones hit 1 of those 2 free throws. Instead of being brought to tears 20 minutes later, Reese might have been still holding that pose.
(Nobody is shaming crying here. If I were a senior in that moment, I’d be bawling my eyes out, too.)
Alabama was a fun but flawed team. It could overcome sometimes poor shot selection because of the way it got after it on the defensive end. Did it make a difference that Jones picked up foul No. 2 just 41 seconds into the game? Absolutely. Was it also a poor call that wasn’t consistent with the way charges were called down the stretch? Probably, yeah.
But Alabama still had itself to blame for the way that game played out.
It didn’t work through a screen on an inbounds lob under the basket dunked home by Cody Riley. It wasted possessions by settling for 3-pointers throughout overtime. John Petty Jr. didn’t wear shorts that were tight enough so that the loose ball could freely travel through his legs without grazing him.
OK, kidding on the last one. That play was beyond bizarre.
Did it graze John Petty’s shorts? pic.twitter.com/onJaUVYjwS
— Patrick Greenfield (@PCGreenfield) March 29, 2021
That play was, however, one of the themes of the night. When you don’t help yourself, it seems like there are cosmic forces working against you.
Welcome to March.
Maryland learned about that all too well during that 3-point barrage courtesy of the Crimson Tide in the Round of 32. On Sunday, the Alabama team who led the nation in 3-pointers was held to just 7 made 3-pointers in 45 minutes of basketball.
Nobody got hot. There were runs, like the 14-0 run after UCLA jumped out to a 7-1 lead. There was the 11-0 run to start the second half, and there was even the 9-0 run after the Bruins build up another 7-point lead.
But UCLA was the team that never collapsed. Mick Cronin’s squad got up after all of Alabama’s haymakers. They got quality looks in the half court, they were 20-for-25 from the free-throw line and they only turned the ball over 8 times compared to 14 for Alabama.
It’s sort of baffling to think that Alabama was tied in a Sweet 16 game at the under-8 media timeout in the second half with all of those aforementioned things working in UCLA’s favor. Add in the fact that at that point, the Crimson Tide had a combined 2 points from Jones, the SEC Player of the Year, and leading scorer Jaden Shackelford.
They had off nights. It’s a testament to Alabama’s depth that it didn’t wilt until overtime.
It was the depth who dug Alabama out of its rut in the first round against Iona. It was the depth who made Alabama look like a national title contender in its blowout win against Maryland. But there was no rotation that worked for Oats on Sunday night.
Should we have seen more of Josh Primo? Perhaps. Reese actually started the second half in place of Jordan Bruner, but then he appeared hobbled with a back injury after his feet got tangled coming down the court a few minutes after the break. Keon Ellis provided big minutes and made some key buckets down the stretch, but like Jones, he battled foul trouble.
There wasn’t a magic formula for Alabama.
Had it been able to make free throws and improve the shot selection, yeah, it could’ve been a different ending. But this Alabama team did what none of the last 16 couldn’t. That is, get to the second weekend. This team had the pieces to make history and earn the program’s first Final Four bid, but hey, that’s March.
Even as heartbreak of a run cut short set in, Oats offered up some perspective on the importance of this year’s squad.
Nate Oats: “I’ll remember this team as the one that changed the entire culture of Alabama basketball.”
“People think about Alabama way different. I told my guys, I’m going to be talking about this team the next 30 years I’m coaching.”
— Mike Rodak (@mikerodak) March 29, 2021
It’s hard to argue with that. History won’t remember this year’s squad as one that collapsed. It’ll remember it as one that had the rare distinction of sweeping the SEC regular season and conference tournament. History will show that Alabama lost to an 11-seed, but it’ll also show that a team picked to finish 5th in the league changed the perception of what constitutes success on the hardwood in Tuscaloosa.
This group was unique. It had a nucleus of transfers, true freshmen and upperclassmen who stayed and bought into Oats’ modern style. There’s no guarantee that there will be another group who embodies that style as well as this one did.
Oats has a true foundation in place. He inked a new deal, he signed a trio of incoming blue-chip recruits and he got his program on a national stage much bigger than his predecessors did.
He said after the SEC Championship that he believed Alabama didn’t have to be a football school or a basketball, and that it could just be a school that won championships. Oats’ team came up short of competing for a title on the ultimate stage and because of how it shook out, it’ll feel like a missed opportunity.
Alabama looked like a team that was ready to take on all that March had to offer. At its best, it was an un-guardable juggernaut that made the term “new blood” (instead of blue blood) seem more topical by the game. Alabama wasn’t anywhere near its best on Sunday night, and it paid the price for it.
A March momentum swing is a force unlike any other.