March Madness has always sort of taken on a different meaning in the minds and hearts of Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

As in, when the calendar flips to the year’s 3rd month, the Crimson Tide talk around T-Town is almost always centered around how another championship can be won that fall. It’s all about adding to Alabama football’s treasure trove of trophies, because the mere thought of the Tide men’s basketball team bringing a title back home is madness in its own right.

But the 2022-23 athletics journey in 1 of America’s most passionate college sports towns has been a little (or maybe a lot) abnormal, hasn’t it? That scrumptious scent of yet another Nick Saban-led national championship was never really smelled last fall, which is a stunner in itself, and so naturally while the football team was busy falling short, the men’s basketball team that always — and we mean always — has fallen short was planting the seeds to arguably the greatest regular season in program history.

The stunning result of a 4-month basketball blitz unlike any this football-mad school has ever seen is now this: With still an entire postseason journey left to turn really special into all-time historical, Nate Oats’ resilient, often times controversial team sits at the doorstep of doing the unthinkable.

So, yeah, in the late winter of 2023, the term “March Madness” actually means in Tuscaloosa what it’s supposed to mean in most other places. It means men’s basketball has taken a stranglehold of the Alabama sports stage, at least until all the magic either finally runs out or just maybe trickles into early April and the 1st Final Four appearance in school history.

For once, spring football can wait.

If ever there was a Crimson Tide basketball team that’s earned Tuscaloosa’s total and undivided attention, well into the month of March, it’s this astonishing group that took its high expectations in November and completely blew them out of the water. Because when Oats’ team took the court at Coleman Coliseum way back on Nov. 7 against Longwood, on a sleepy Monday night with a campus still mourning the football team’s overtime loss at LSU just 2 nights earlier, it carried with it a solid No. 20 preseason ranking that was good but hardly hinted at what was to come.

That night, a wiry 6-9 forward just oozing with potential named Brandon Miller made his memorable college basketball debut, posting 14 points and 13 rebounds to lead Alabama to a solid if unspectacular 75-54 victory against its overmatched opponent from the Big South Conference. Nobody knew it then, because, really, how could they, but it was the launching point for 1 of the most successful regular seasons in Alabama men’s basketball history and has arguably already made this Crimson Tide team the best in program history.

Oats might cringe at that last sentence, because as we sit here today, on March 10, you could justifiably say that Alabama’s season is really just beginning. On Friday afternoon in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals in Nashville, the Crimson Tide — the SEC regular-season champion Crimson Tide, the top-seeded Crimson Tide — will take the floor at Bridgestone Arena against Mississippi State with a singular hunger for hardware.

Now, this team must go out and add to a trophy case that is mighty thin at the moment. Yes, the Crimson Tide have won 7 SEC Tournament titles, 2nd only to Kentucky, but since the glory years of Wimp Sanderson in the 1980s and early ’90s, Bama has only won once, in 2021.

That’s exactly 1 SEC Tournament championship since Sanderson’s last title in 1991.

And that means that despite the glorious flood of victories from that early November night right on through the magical comeback last week against Auburn that clinched its 2nd SEC regular-season title in 3 years, this particular Alabama squad will be facing March expectations (to go with a heavy dose of scrutiny) unlike any of the really good ones that even the legendary Sanderson coached.

These highest of stakes could only be set up after a regular season for the ages, when the 48-year-old Oats seemingly checked off all the boxes during only his 4th season in Tuscaloosa. Sure, it was only 2 short seasons ago that Oats led the Crimson Tide to 26 wins, just like he already has this season, and to a 16-2 conference record, also just like he did this season. That 2020-21 squad was really, really good coming out of the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it wasn’t 2022-23 good.

The 2021 team didn’t take down the No. 1 team in the country — twice — like this team did, pulling off the incredible feat before the calendar even flipped to 2023. The 2nd of those thrilling top-ranked takedowns came on Dec. 10 against Houston, which eventually returned to No. 1 after winning 11 in a row to end the regular season, and it came on the Cougars’ home court, so it was a true road victory over a team that will likely be the No. 1 overall seed come Selection Sunday.

The 2021 team never beat No. 1, and the 2021 Tide never became No. 1, like this team did. This season’s otherworldly version of Alabama basketball pulled it off just a few weeks back, in the AP poll of Feb. 13, becoming the 1st Crimson Tide team to climb to the top of the AP rankings since Bama spent 2 weeks atop the poll midway through the 2002-03 season.

And by ending the program’s 2-decade No. 1 drought, this Tide team made history together with another program that’s No. 1 all the time — the Crimson Tide football team. Alabama is the 1st school to be ranked No. 1 in the AP football and basketball polls during the same athletic season since Ohio State did the double in 2010-11.

But Alabama football being No. 1 is as reliable as the sun rising in the East every morning.

Alabama basketball? That’s a totally different dynamic, an endless struggle to the top of its sport instead of just about a yearly ascent to the top, and that’s what makes this Crimson Tide basketball story so different.

There are the aforementioned glossy accomplishments, against the backdrop of a preseason No. 20 ranking that told everyone this Tide team would be good but maybe not great.

There was the total uncertainty going into this season of senior guard Jahvon Quinerly, who suffered a significant knee injury in last year’s NCAA Tournament as Alabama’s season came crashing down in the 1st round against Notre Dame.

Because of those injury concerns with Quinerly and fellow senior guard Dom Welch, there were serious concerns about Alabama surviving an entire season in a tough SEC with it being so dependent on its freshmen. Sure enough, in that season-opening win over Longwood, freshmen accounted for 48 of the Tide’s 75 points and 32 of their 67 rebounds.

But Oats had a notion, even after 1 game, that his highly touted freshman class would be up to the task, that they’d be in the fight for the long haul.

“Some people had (Alabama’s freshman class) ranked as the third class in the country, and I think it’s showing,” Oats said on that early November night. “I was happy with the freshman class. We’re going to play them a lot this year, that’s for sure.”

And he did.

And they rewarded him.

Because without those freshmen who grew up really darn fast — highlighted by the supremely gifted and embattled Miller, who was far and away the team’s scoring leader at 19.6 points per game on the way to winning SEC Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, along with guards Jaden Bradley and Rylan Griffen, and forward Noah Clowney, who averaged 10 points and 8 rebounds per contest — who knows what this Alabama basketball season would have looked like.

Who knows if there would’ve been 26 wins, 16 SEC wins, a regular-season SEC crown and just maybe a conference tournament crown to place next to it.

Who knows if Alabama would’ve been a permanent fixture in the Top 10 — and then the Top 5 — of both major polls during the winter months instead of just the fall ones, like it has been for the past 15 years under Saban.

Alabama fans who’ve stuck with the basketball team through thick and thin for years, or decades, can ask themselves this question as Selection Sunday beckons: How many times do you remember sitting back on a mid-March Sunday night and knowing, without really much question, that the Crimson Tide are going to be a No. 1 seed when you see “Alabama” pop onto the TV screen?

It simply doesn’t happen. It’s the kind of Alabama sports moment that’s reserved for early December, on college football’s version of Selection Sunday, not mid-March, on college basketball’s annual viewing holiday.

Two years ago, when Oats helped author that special 26-win season, the Tide were a 2 seed, not a 1, and they were stunned by a Cinderella 11th-seeded UCLA team in the Sweet 16.

In 2002-03, when Bama ascended to that last No. 1 ranking before this season, the Tide sunk to a 10 seed by the time March came around and were bounced by Indiana in the 1st round of the tournament.

And the year after that, in 2004, when Alabama basketball made its 1st and only trip to the Elite Eight, the Tide were only an 8 seed, not a full-fledged Cinderella with a double-digit seed next to its name but not exactly 1 of the tournament’s favorites expected to get that far. Mark Gottfried’s team was a respectable but hardly sensational 20-13 that season, went just 8-8 in the SEC but snuck into the Big Dance and made the absolute most of that invite before losing to eventual national champion Connecticut.

During the Wimp Era, his outlandish plaid jackets became all the rage at Coleman Coliseum and so did Sweet 16 appearances. There was a whopping 6 of them between 1982-91. Sanderson was 1 heck of a character, and he won a boatload of games, but he never got Bama to an Elite Eight, never mind that elusive Final Four that remains elusive to this day.

Before Sanderson became the head coach in the early 1980s, the Tide had only advanced to 1 Sweet 16 in their history — in 1976. That’s a lot of frustrating decades of Bama basketball without the slightest whiff of NCAA Tournament success.

Heck, the 1 time that it says in the history books that Alabama men’s basketball could technically be called “national champions” is when something called the Premo-Porretta Power Poll retroactively recognized the 1929-30 Tide as champions — in 1995, so you might say the players on that special team were shortchanged a title celebration. In what was billed as the actual national championship game in 1930, Pittsburgh edged Montana State, 37-36 — there was no NCAA Tournament until 1939 — so there was no hint of the Crimson Tide when that title was won on the court.

The point is, Alabama would very much like to win a national championship in men’s basketball when it doesn’t have to find out retroactively, 65 years later. To do that, Oats’ team will have to thread the needle on the court, as it has 26 times in its 31 games so far, while withstanding the likely backlash on maybe not-so-friendly neutral courts for the capital murder case that has engulfed the Tide basketball program this winter.

None of it will be easy, nor should it be.

Bama’s dress rehearsal of sorts begins Friday, when it will face the pressure and expectations of being the No. 1 seed in Nashville without the do-or-die scenario that will greet the Tide next week when the real tournament begins.

And that’s precisely when Oats will hope that his super impressive slew of freshmen led by Miller don’t play like freshmen experiencing the highly anxious moments of the NCAA Tournament for the 1st time, which they will be.

He’ll hope that the old adage proves true about freshmen not really being freshmen anymore this late in the season, whether it’s football, basketball or any sport.

He’ll hope that his veterans — like the resilient and resourceful Quinerly, who ended up playing in 29 games with reduced minutes despite that awful knee injury and won the SEC Co-Sixth Man of the Year award, and like junior guard Mark Sears, who averaged a hair over 13 points per contest and was an iron man at over 30 minutes per game while playing in all 31 of them — can show his freshmen the way like they did so well during the regular season.

And you can throw in sophomore center Charles Bediako into that “veteran mix,” with the 7-foot rim protector averaging 2 blocks per game to go with his 6 points and 6 rebounds while playing in all 31 games. Bediako has been a quintessential “glue guy” for Oats, and quality glue guys are usually the ones who elevate great teams like this Alabama squad into national championship teams.

They are indispensable, especially when 2 of your top 3 leading scorers are freshmen and your top 2 rebounders are freshmen, too.

They are also vital when your program has tasted a measure of success during its history but never the ultimate success.

Because staring down elimination on a neutral floor amid the anxiety of March is quite different than a January home tilt against, say, Ole Miss. Even this weekend’s SEC Tournament will feel different for Miller and Co. as they try to win the program’s 2nd conference tourney title in 3 years.

For an Alabama basketball team like none that Tuscaloosa has ever experienced, the regular season was challenging in a million ways, and that’s probably good for Oats because March — and if he’s lucky, early April — will be 1,000 times more daunting.

There will very likely be a No. 1 seed next to his team’s name — 1 this weekend and 1 starting next week — and the kind of super-sized target on his team’s back usually reserved for … the Alabama football team from September through January. But this time, during the backward Alabama sports season of 2022-23, it is the men’s basketball program that’s trying to bring a championship back to T-Town.

Sure, you can go ahead and already call this team the best in Bama basketball history. That’s all well and good.

But the next few frantic weeks will tell us if we can forever call this Crimson Tide team champions.

It will be ridiculously riveting theater.

It will be nuts and nerve-racking.

It will be total madness.

It’ll be March Madness at Alabama, this time in its truest, coolest form.