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  • Writer's pictureKevin Scarbinsky

Time for Alabama to make this Elite Eight date count

Updated: Mar 31

Today is Game Day No. 2,892 in the long, proud history of Alabama basketball. It is the biggest day for the program in 20 years, at least among days that come with a scoreboard attached. If the Crimson Tide beats the Clemson team it couldn't handle in Tuscaloosa in November, it will be the biggest victory in the program's history.

On this point, there can be no honest debate. You win the game that sends your program to the Final Four for the first time, and your legacy is secure. It will be written in cement, footprints and handprints optional.

It's been a long time coming, this day, especially for the program that ranks behind only Kentucky in all-time SEC victories and championships. Win today in LA in the House that Shaq and Kobe Built, and Alabama will become the ninth SEC program to earn a trip to the Final Four.

Original conference members Kentucky, LSU, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi State and Auburn got there first. As did expansion additions Arkansas and South Carolina. It's another example of the madness of March, one that hits too close to home for the Capstone. Alabama's ongoing lifetime absence from the final weekend of the men's college basketball season is a glaring oversight in dire need of correction.

Today, March 30, 2024, could be and should be the day.

A win today would be bigger than Alabama 101, Kentucky 77 on Feb. 25, 1956. That day in Montgomery's Garrett Coliseum, Jerry Harper and the Rocket Eight became the first team ever to hang a hundred on the already storied Wildcats and their Baron of the Bluegrass, Adolph Rupp. 

That Alabama team would finish 21-3 and win the SEC, though it did not play in the NCAA Tournament. At the time, legendary Birmingham News columnist Benny Marshall called that UK flogging "the greatest win for the greatest Alabama basketball team in history."

Times change, and the bar is raised.

Cut down nets today, and it won't change the game the way Alabama 65, Louisville 55 did on Dec. 28, 1973 when C.M. Newton had the guts to start five black players, which no SEC team had ever done. Leon Douglas, Charles Cleveland, Boonie Russell, Ray Odums and T.R. Dunn led the way to a 22-4 record and the school's third SEC championship, its first since the Rocket Eight, and so much more.

They didn't play in the 25-team NCAA Tournament because the field included no more than one team per conference and SEC co-champ Vanderbilt beat them twice by a combined three points. In a larger sense, their legacy runs far deeper than a banner. Newton once told me that Bear Bryant, who doubled as the Alabama AD that hired him, explained the meaning of an all-black starting lineup just 10 years after Gov. George Wallace's infamous Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.  

Newton remembered Bryant telling him, "You know, C.M., I can start any number of black players, and they're covered up with helmets and shoulder pads. They don't count for me. With your players in those white uniforms, they count: 1, 2, 3, 4 …"

"It brought some realism to it for me," Newton said. He would bring three straight SEC regular-season titles to Tuscaloosa in 1974, 1975 and 1976, but the most well-known game he coached was an NCAA Tournament loss. No one came closer to defeating that 1976 Indiana team, the last unbeaten national champion, than Alabama in the Sweet 16.

But it can't be the biggest game in school history if it ended in defeat, no matter how close that special team came to pushing that big rock to the top of that steep hill.

No Alabama coach won more games overall, in the SEC Tournament or the Big Dance, than Wimp Sanderson. His 12-year tenure was studded with big victories, like the March 6, 1982 SEC Tournament final over Kentucky in Rupp Arena, but his six trips to the Sweet 16 all ended there.

Now comes Nate Oats, paying homage to Sanderson with his own sideline intensity, plaid jackets and a third Sweet 16 in four years, going one step beyond. Alabama has won seven NCAA Tournament games in the last four years on Oats' watch. In the 27 seasons between Sanderson and Oats, Alabama won eight NCAA Tournament games.

The all-time in-state list of March Madness coaching victories stands here, at least until later tonight:

  • Wimp Sanderson, Alabama -- 12-10 in 12 seasons

  • Nate Oats, Alabama -- 7-3 in five seasons

  • Bruce Pearl, Auburn -- 7-5 in 10 seasons

  • Sonny Smith, Auburn -- 7-5 in 11 seasons

  • Gene Bartow, UAB -- 6-9 in 17 seasons

Oats' fifth Tide team stands where only one team in his program's history has stood before, 40 minutes away from the elusive Final Four.

The unexpected 2004 run under Mark Gottfried ended at this point, and Kennedy Winston and company would remain Alabama's only Elite Eight team for far too long. A talented Tide roster, which underperformed during the regular season, got hot at the right time. Its 70-67 victory over 30-1 No. 1 seed Stanford in the second round in Seattle puts March 20, 2004 on the short list of the greatest days in Alabama basketball history.

With little more than seven minutes left, the Tide trailed by 13 points, then unleashed a 16-0 run that flipped the script and stunned the Cardinal. That game remains more vivid in a lot of memories than the next one over defending champ Syracuse. Until two days ago, Alabama 80, Syracuse 71 on March 25, 2004 was the one-and-only Sweet 16 victory the program had to show for 10 trips to the regional semifinals.

That 2004 team met its Elite Eight match in eventual champ UConn. Its 2024 cousin in crimson chaos seems more capable of taking that next step. 

There is something unique about playing in the Elite Eight as Alabama will do again at long last tonight. At this late stage, one bridge away from the Final Four and all that comes with it, there are no excuses if you lose. Not even if Nick Pringle's nagging heel nags him too much or the valuable Latrell Wrightsell Jr. is sidelined for a second straight game.

On the plus side, there are no asterisks if you win, no matter what your bitter rival tells you. Go look at the one Final Four banner earned by a Division I men's team in this state. Hanging inside Auburn's Neville Arena, it includes the interlocking AU logo, the official NCAA Final Four logo for that season and the year, 2019. It does not list the teams the Tigers beat to get there although any AU family member can recite the blueblood victims by heart, from the second round to the Sweet 16 through the Elite Eight: Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky. Oh, my. That was a run for the ages. 

Clemson is no blueblood, but pedigree doesn't punch your ticket to the ultimate college basketball weekend. You know what does? It's Mark Sears telling every Alabama player that preceded him to get behind him, at least in terms of points scored in a single season, surpassing longtime record-holder Reggie "Mule" King in the Sweet 16. It's Grant Nelson putting Alabama on his back and Devils Lake, N.D., on the map against No. 1 seed North Carolina.

Tonight? Who knows? It may be Aaron Estrada going deep into his bag of tricks or Rylan Griffen making the net dance at the very last before climbing a ladder and cutting it down. It's way past time for Alabama to get to the Final Four. With Oats at the wheel, this proud championship program should have more chances down the road, but tomorrow is promised to no one. Alabama may never have a better chance to dance the last dance than it does today.  

It was all a blur as Grant Nelson rose up in Alabama's Sweet 16 win over North Carolina.


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