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LOS ANGELES — When the Crimson Tide takes the floor against No. 1 seed North Carolina Thursday, it will mark its third appearance in the Sweet 16 during Nate Oats’ five-year tenure. Outside of 2020, when the event was canceled due to COVID-19, Alabama has reached the NCAA Tournament in all four seasons with Oats at the helm. It’s been a meteoric rise for a program that had been to the Big Dance just twice in the 13 years before Oats took the job. 

An overwhelming majority of college programs would kill for that kind of consistency, but Oats has a loftier vision for the Tide.

“We still haven’t gotten to a Final Four,” Oats said. “To me, that’s kind of the next step.”

Alabama is on the precipice of its second Elite Eight appearance in program history thanks in large part to a high-powered offense. The Crimson Tide lead the nation in scoring (90.7 ppg) and average 14.5 seconds per possession, the third-fastest in the country according to KenPom.com. Alabama has made the third-most 3-pointers in the country and is on pace to finish as the highest-scoring team from the SEC since Kentucky’s national title team in 1995-96. 

Unfortunately for Alabama, many of their astronomical point totals have been a necessity. The Crimson Tide allow 80.9 points per game, good enough for the No. 345 scoring defense in the country. Among all Power Six teams, only DePaul has been worse. Alabama is allowing the second-most points (81.7 ppg) of any tournament team in the last 25 years.

While the Tide have been at home in fast-paced shootouts, their last outing against Grand Canyon was the opposite. Alabama was uncharacteristically sluggish on offense, but managed to slog their way to a 72-61 win over the Lopes thanks to an inspired defensive effort that Oats called the team’s best in months. 

“I told them we don’t have to forget about offense when we play great defense,” Oats said on Wednesday. “You can put both together. The Grand Canyon game, I’ve had people compare it to a rugby contest, football contest. It got a little rough, physical. I like the fact that our guys matched their physicality and stayed in it didn’t quit and showed a lot of character. But, yeah, it would be nice if our offense took care of the ball and made shots like we have been (the rest of the season).”

Oats knows his team will need an inspired effort on both ends of the floor to take down North Carolina. The Tar Heels earned a No. 1 seed on the back of the No. 6 scoring offense in the country. They also rank No. 21 in the country in defensive efficiency. 

 “We’re going to have to get an offense that’s clicking like the No. 1 offense in the country in order to have a chance to win this game,” Oats said. “So we’ve made that point. We’re putting a little more time in on our offensive side, trying to figure out how to attack them. Now, they’re not easy to figure out how to attack. They’ve got really good rim protection. They’ve got good guards. They’ve got smart players. They’re good. But we are putting some time in on the offensive side of the ball too.”

Sears seeks redemption 

Alabama guard Mark Sears remembers what it feels like to play in the Sweet 16 all too well. The All-American was a starter on last year’s Crimson Tide team that ran roughshod over the SEC, capturing the league’s regular season and tournament crowns. Alabama entered last year’s NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed and continued its dominance through the first two rounds, beating both Texas A&M Corpus Christi and Maryland by 20-plus points. 

That’s when the Tide ran into eventual national runner-up San Diego State. The Aztecs upended Alabama 71-64 ending what had seemed like a season of destiny for the Crimson Tide. Sears found a constructive use for the pain of last year’s loss. 

“Just having that feeling of, man, it was basically disappointing because we were the No. 1 seed and wanted to win the whole thing,” Sears said. “Just having that motivation through the whole offseason, just constantly putting in the work and hours. No matter when I’m tired, just continuing to fight through it and be mentally tough. I just had that mindset throughout the whole offseason.”

That work paid off. Sears’ numbers are up dramatically from last year. His scoring average is up nine points per game — from 12.5 to 21.5 — making him one of the country’s top offensive threats.  

 Much like Alabama last year, North Carolina comes into Thursday’s matchup as a No. 1 seed and favorite to reach the Final Four. After stewing for 12 months over last year’s loss, Sears and the Tide finally have a chance to dish out some heartache of their own. The two teams tip off 30 minutes after the conclusion of Clemson-Arizona on CBS.  



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