Alabama made a leap into the NCAA Tournament’s top seeds two years ago only to fall short of the Final Four.
This time, the Crimson Tide has risen to the top of the field of 68 with a team that coach Nate Oats believes is better equipped to meet those expectations.
Alabama (29-5) gets to stay home as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and the headliner of the South Region bracket after landing the program’s first-ever top seed when Sunday’s field of 68 teams was revealed. That came hours after the Tide closed out a second Southeastern Conference Tournament title in three seasons.
Alabama opens play in Birmingham on Thursday, facing the First Four winner between Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Southeast Missouri State.
The Crimson Tide owned a 2-seed in the 2021 tournament taking place in the Indianapolis bubble due to the pandemic, but fell in the Sweet 16 to Final Four-bound UCLA. Oats figures this year’s team has more offensive punch, versatility, depth and rim protection.
“We’ve tried to build a team that can still win when we don’t shoot it well,” Oats said after the SEC title win in Nashville, Tennessee. “Can we be great on defense, rebound the ball well, take care of the ball? If we do that, even if we shoot poorly, I think we can generate enough free throws, rim shots to win.”
Alabama is one of four teams to rank in the top 20 of KenPom’s efficiency metrics for offense and defense, joining fellow No. 1 seed Houston, Texas (a 2-seed) and Connecticut (a 4-seed). It’s also one of the nation’s most prolific 3-point shooting teams, ranking fourth nationally in attempts per game (29.8) and 11th in makes (10.1).
Yet the success has come with the program dealing with the fallout of being tied to a murder case. Former Tide player Darius Miles and another man have been indicted on capital murder charges for the January shooting death of 23-year-old Jamea Harris.
The case also involves star freshman Brandon Miller, with a police investigator testifying last month that Miles texted Miller to bring him his gun that night. Neither Miller nor current player Jaden Bradley, who police said was also at the scene, have been charged and both have continued to play.
The program has compounded the scrutiny with public missteps, including Oats having to apologize for a set of comments and later for Miller’s pat-down routine during pregame introductions before a win against Arkansas.
“Obviously we never lose sight of the tragedy that’s kind of marked our season,” Oats said after the SEC Tournament. “It’s always there.”
Arizona is the No. 2 seed in the South after the Wildcats (28-6) won the Pac-12 Tournament for the second time in as many seasons under Tommy Lloyd. They have KenPom’s No. 4-ranked offense by averaging 120 points per 100 possessions.
Baylor is the No. 3 seed, with Scott Drew’s Bears (22-10) ranking as one of six teams to tally at least 10 wins against quadrant 1 teams to top a postseason resume.
Virginia is the 4-seed after sharing the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title and before losing to Duke in the ACC Tournament final. But the Cavaliers lost starting forward Ben Vander Plas on the eve of the ACC Tournament to a season-ending injury, which has forced coach Tony Bennett to make a late-season rotation pivot that could be a factor in March.
That has meant more minutes for 6-foot-11 redshirt junior Kadin Shedrick, who went from not playing at all for the last two regular-season games to playing at least 17 minutes in three ACC tourney games.
There are some teams enjoying returns after lengthy absences, starting with Southern Conference champion Furman.
The 13th-seeded Paladins (27-7) will face the Cavaliers for their first tournament game since 1980 — three years before current coach Bob Richey was born. Their previous five NCAA bids all came between 1971 and 1978.
There’s also No. 11 seed North Carolina State and a 31-win team in College of Charleston as the 12-seed, with both in the field for the first time since 2018.
ROUNDING OUT THE BRACKET
Maryland earned the No. 8 seed in Year 1 under Kevin Willard and will face No. 9 seed West Virginia. Fifth-seeded San Diego State will face Charleston in what could be a popular 5-12 upset pick for bracket pools along with the Furman-Virginia matchup.
In the bottom of the bracket, Creighton is the 6-seed and will face N.C. State while Baylor will face 14th-seeded UC Santa Barbara. Missouri and Utah State meet in a 7-10 matchup while 15th-seeded Princeton faces Arizona.
ROAD TO HOUSTON
The regionals will be held in Louisville, Kentucky, which would have Alabama playing within its league footprint about 420 miles north of its Tuscaloosa campus.
The Crimson Tide is the favorite to reach the Final Four and the second-biggest favorite to win the title behind Houston, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. The seeds held with Arizona and Baylor next, though Creighton jumped ahead of Virginia and San Diego State to come out of the South.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25