‘Penciled in history’: Alabama revels in first Final Four berth

LOS ANGELES — Alabama guard Rylan Griffen looked up at an imaginary wall and thought about all of the legendary athletes and teams that have been at Tuscaloosa.

There’s Heisman Trophy winners. Hall of Famers. National champions.

Now he and his teammates will be among those names for being responsible for Alabama achieving its first Final Four in school history.

‘We get penciled in history,’ Griffen said.

It’s a major accomplishment for a program that has long lived in the shadow of its football team and located in a place where sports rule. Not only is football good, but so is softball, gymnastics and golf, with all of the sports making finals and most importantly, winning national championships.

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Now this team can add itself to the list, and it has the chance of creating even more history with the first national championship in men’s basketball.

‘We want to be great in whatever we do. It’s the University of Alabama, we should be,’ athletic director Greg Byrne told USA TODAY Sports. ‘People care about the University of Alabama like no other, and so it’s really cool to see that happen on the basketball court.’

It was another outstanding offensive performance from Alabama on Saturday night, but with a twist. The Crimson Tide didn’t come out shooting great. It started 6-for-27 from the field and 1-for-13 from 3-point land. All the makings of a lackluster performance.

But the twist was Alabama was making Clemson work offensively, something not seen much from the Crimson Tide this season. Clemson didn’t shoot the ball well in the first half either, and Alabama’s defense prevented Clemson from ever getting too far ahead. Then the Alabama offense found rhythm. It went on a 22-6 run to end the first half, and from there that’s when the offense did the rest.

Clemson’s offense was much improved in the second half, but it wasn’t nearly as good as Alabama’s. The Crimson Tide made 16 of its 23 second half shots. The Tide made 10 3-pointers. Not many teams would be able to keep up with what Alabama was doing, and the Tigers found out the hard way, falling just short of making their first Final Four. 

‘We can have the No. 1 offense in the country; we had it for the majority of the year,’ said head coach Nate Oats. ‘Let’s put a top-20 defense together and we can make a Final Four. I think we did that.’

AD, players give Nate Oats credit 

Byrne has seen his fair share of successful teams since he took the position at Alabama in 2017, and even though the basketball team was in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight season, he knew some improvements were needed to make the Final Four. Alabama needed to sharpen up its defense since it was in the bottom of the country in scoring defense. The defense did enough to let its offense flourish in the tournament.

That’s where Byrne gives credit to Oats. And his coaching this postseason is likely what Byrne envisioned when he hired him in 2019. When he offered him the position, Byrne said he told the former Buffalo coach to remember his beginnings when he was coaching basketball and teaching math classes at Romulus High School in Michigan. Remember when he sold ‘Capri Suns and Cheetos’ out of his office during that time so he had money to take his team on trips. If Oats didn’t forget that humility, then Byrne believed he was capable of achieving greatness with the Crimson Tide. 

His players made sure to give Oats his due. People thought last year’s team that was the No. 1 overall seed was Alabama’s best chance to make the Final Four, but it was bounced in the Sweet 16. There wasn’t much outside belief Alabama could make it this year, yet here they are.

‘He’s just a great coach all around. He lost a lot from last year,’ said guard Mark Sears, who was named the West Regional Most Outstanding Player. ‘Just for him to rebuild a group, like he got us. It just goes to show how hardworking he is and how much of a competitor he is as well.’

Achieving basketball success at a football school

When Oats took the job at Alabama, he couldn’t deny football lived in the spotlight, and other sports were also winning titles. So he made it his mission to get the basketball team to the same level. Even going into this season, the basketball team was having winning seasons, but it hadn’t achieved a Final Four, something Oats felt would validate the team.

So Oats used his resources to his advantage. He tried to learn everything he could from seven-time national championship winning coach Nick Saban. Oats would watch football practices, sit on staff meetings, go on his road trips and even shadowed him. Quotes from Saban would consistently be used by Oats. He figured if he could just see how a coach consistently in the national championship picture operates, it would benefit his team. 

‘I came to Alabama loving the fact that I was going to be able to work in the same athletic department as arguably the best – maybe not even the best football coach – the best coach of any team sports in modern history, or college sports, anything,’ Oats said. ‘I didn’t want to bother him. But I certainly picked his brain when it was appropriate.’

Saban has communicated with Oats during the NCAA Tournament run, encouraging him to get ready for the next challenge, which Alabama has been able to do so far. It’s learning from the football team’s success that makes it perfectly fine that Alabama is primarily a football school, regardless of how this postseason ends.

‘I love the fact that we’re a football school, and we’re going to try to add another sport to the championship school level because I think we’re knocking on the door there,’ Oats said. ‘Only 18 national championships behind them. We have a few to catch up. Let’s just keep grinding. Let’s get to a Final Four first, and let’s put ourselves on a big stage.’

So sure, Alabama hasn’t won a basketball championship yet. But achieving a Final Four spot, that’s something that could certainly launch another era of success in Tuscaloosa. This time, maybe it won’t just be football shining in the spotlight.

‘We’re never quite been able to get over this hurdle,’ Byrne said. ‘I certainly think this could be a springboard to a lot of other great things ahead.’

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