NCAA Tournament primer: Scouting Alabama's opening opponent and more
Alabama has checked every box possible now in league play, turning the Southeastern Conference into its own personal playground in 2022-23.
The Crimson Tide, with a host of talented freshmen led by Brandon Miller and a sprinkling of just enough veteran leadership, stormed to a 16-2 regular-season conference record and their 2nd title in 3 years under head coach Nate Oats. They were relentless on the court and resilient off it while dealing with the capital murder case that has engulfed the program over the past few months.
Bama spent most of the season in the Top 10, then soared higher on Feb. 13 by becoming No. 1 in the country for the 1st time in 2 decades.
But there was still more to do this past week in Nashville, and the Tide did it.
Simply, they owned Bridgestone Arena, methodically taking care of Mississippi State, Missouri and a really good Texas A&M team on Sunday to capture their 2nd SEC Tournament title in 3 years and the program’s 8th overall.
Along with the young and dynamic Miller, veteran star turned 6th-man standout Jahvon Quinerly and sophomore center Charles Bediako helped get the Crimson Tide to the finish line, with a shiny trophy to hold up and more nets to cut down.
And for Bama it might only be the beginning of the rain of confetti. The Tide earned the NCAA Tournament’s top overall seed with a glossy 29-5 overall record. Oats and his team now carry enormous expectations and will face a ton of scrutiny as they sit 4 precious victories from the 1st Final Four appearance in school history.
If Alabama can own the South Region like it did the SEC this season, then the Tide would be 2 wins from a national championship that has previously only been reserved for their football brothers at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Right now, in March 2023, basketball rules in Tuscaloosa and the real madness is set to begin.
Here’s a look at Bama’s 2 possible 1st-round opponents right down the road in Birmingham on Thursday and a prediction for how far the Crimson Tide will go in the NCAA Tournament:
Scouting Texas A&M-Corpus Christi/Southeast Missouri State
The reward – or some might say the mystery – for being the tournament’s top overall seed is that Oats’ team won’t know who it’s going to play until Tuesday night, when Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Southeast Missouri State battle in Dayton, Ohio, for the right to carry a No. 16 seeding into a South Regional matchup with the No. 1 Tide.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi dominated the Southland Conference this season, going 14-4, but it had a heck of a time winning the conference tournament and the spot in a First Four game that came with it. The Islanders (23-10) fell behind by 16 points in the 1st half before rallying for a 75-71 victory against 2nd-seeded Northwestern State in the tournament championship game on Wednesday. Guess that means they will be battle-tested if they wind up facing Bama this Thursday in Birmingham.
Then there is Southeast Missouri State, Bama’s other possible 1st-round foe. The Redhawks went 19-16 overall and finished 5th in the Ohio Valley Conference with a pedestrian 10-8 record. But when the OVC Tournament started, the Redhawks revved it up 100 notches. They won 4 games in 4 days, capped by an 89-82 OT victory against 2nd-seeded Tennessee Tech in the championship game. SE Missouri State also took down top-seeded Morehead State in the OVC semifinals just to have a shot to play for its 1st NCAA Tournament berth since 2000. So, the Redhawks would be a far more unlikely 16th seed than Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which won its regular-season conference title.
Oats will scout both clubs Tuesday night, but he’ll be able to throw away 1 of his reports by night’s end.
How they got here: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi did the double in the Southland Conference, winning the regular-season and conference tournament titles to reach the NCAA’s field of 68 for the 2nd straight year. Meanwhile, Southeast Missouri State took an arduous route back to the NCAA Tournament with those 4 OVC tourney victories after a 5th-place regular-season finish.
Top player: For Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, it is senior forward Isaac Mushila, who averaged 14.4 points and 9.7 rebounds a contest, and played in all 33 games this season for the Islanders. Mushila also takes a 55 percent shooting clip into the NCAA Tournament. Southeast Missouri State is led by sophomore guard Phillip Russell, who averaged 18 points, 5 assists and 3 rebounds a game, although he shot just 40 percent.
What they do best: With Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, one of its biggest strengths isn’t sexy, but it sure does win games. The Islanders’ top scorers shoot very well at the free-throw line. Leading point-getter Trevian Tennyson shot 91 percent from the line; Mushila, their 2nd-leading scorer, converted 84 percent of the time; 3rd-leading scorer Terrion Murdix shot 83 percent from there; and 4th-leading scorer Ross Williams was 87 percent in that category. Meanwhile, Southeast Missouri State’s biggest strength is resilience. The Redhawks lost 8 games in a row during the season, hardly something NCAA Tournament teams usually do. That fight came through clearly in their OVC Tournament run.
Best win this season: For Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, it was the victory that sent the Islanders to the NCAA play-in game. The top seed in the Southland Conference was seeing its season slip away before overcoming that 16-point 1st-half deficit to claim its league title. For Southeast Missouri State, it was the OVC semifinal win against the league’s top seed, in which the Redhawks trailed Morehead State by 5 at the half before rallying.
Most important thing to know about Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Southeast Missouri State: For the Islanders, it is that consistent feeling of winning they have built up. Since Jan. 26, they have reeled off 12 victories in 13 games. For the Redhawks, it is their lack of reliance on the 3-point shot, something truly notable in this long-distance era. Southeast Missouri State shot just 32.6 percent as a team from beyond the arc.
Prediction: The Crimson Tide didn’t earn all of their victories and accolades to become the 2nd No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16. Yes, Bama depends on freshmen who will be experiencing the NCAA Tournament environment for the 1st time, but SEC basketball is a pretty big stage in its own right. The Tide may struggle a bit in the opening minutes, but they’ll win by something like 24 points once they shake off the jitters. We’ll say Bama wins, 87-63, against either opponent.
Beyond the opener
Assuming the Crimson Tide don’t make the wrong kind of history in their 1st-round game on Thursday, the road to a 1st Final Four will be daunting. But shouldn’t it be?
Maryland and West Virginia tangle in the 8-9 game, and the higher-seeded Terrapins from the Big Ten would be a bruising 2nd-round draw.
Beyond that, in a potential Sweet 16 matchup, the Tide could face 1 of 2 regular-season conference champions in either 4th-seeded Virginia, which was the co-champion of the ACC, or 5th-seeded San Diego State, which won the Mountain West regular-season and conference tournament titles.
On the other side of the South Region bracket, there is N.C. State, which could be dangerous as a No. 11 seed with a talent like Terquavion Smith. The Wolfpack could be a sleeping giant. Also on the bottom half of the bracket is No. 3 seed Baylor, which still has a winning culture after capturing the national title 2 years ago.
And if that’s not scary enough, there is a No. 2 seed in Arizona that enters the NCAA Tournament fresh off taking down UCLA for the Pac-12 Tournament title. The Wildcats are brimming with confidence.
So, getting out of the South Region will be extremely challenging for the ultra-talented Tide.
Because, again, it should be.
But in the end, through the tough foes and harsh scrutiny the team will face on neutral courts, Alabama will drive through all that and earn that elusive 1st Final Four berth. The Tide will honor their No. 1 overall seed and find themselves at the doorstep of making the kind of history usually reserved for Nick Saban’s football program.
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I think I would rather play Maryland than WV. Something about playing a tough Bob Huggins team in the tourney just doesn’t sound great.
The sky is the limit with this Bama team. West Virginia is not that great and Nate oats will have the Tide ready to roll. I truly think Bama may be the only hope for the SEC this year. All the other SEC teams have been quite inconsistent like Arkansas, TN and KY. We will find out soon