Won, not done: No. 4 seed Alabama heads to Arizona for first men’s Final Four in program history

Alabama guard Mark Sears gazes at the confetti after his Crimson Tide beat Clemson in an Elite Eight game in Los Angeles. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne, who used to oversee athletics at Arizona, celebrates with the crowd before joining in the net-cutting ceremony. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News

Aaron Estrada, graduate guard for Alabama, sends his defender, Chase Hunter, crashing to the floor. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

LOS ANGELES – Is this the College Football Playoff?

No, but Alabama finds itself among Final Four schools for yet another athletic season, and this time it’s basketball.

By downing Clemson 89-82 Saturday at Crypto.com Arena, the No. 4 seed Crimson Tide earned a trip to the men’s Final Four, joining Connecticut as the first two teams to advance to Saturday’s competition at State Farm Stadium in Glendale.

It is the same building where Alabama beat Clemson for the national title in football, just eight years ago.

Despite the steady contributions from senior guard Mark Sears, Alabama once again needed another player to step up. In the Sweet 16 against North Carolina, it was senior forward Grant Nelson, and in the round of 32, it was freshman forward Mouhamed Dioubate. Saturday, when the lights were at their brightest and the team trailed by 13, freshman forward Jarin Stevenson grew up in the eyes of coach Nate Oats.

Stevenson, who averaged five points and three rebounds on the year, exploded for 19 points off the bench and splashed home five 3-pointers, too.

“We don’t win this game without him,” Sears said. “When Girard was going off from three, Jarin hit three after three after three and kept us in the ball game. He was huge tonight.”

This confidence doesn’t just happen overnight. Starting out the season a little shaky, the team adopted the Buddhist “mudita” mentality, which means joy, and that has stuck since.

Graduate guard Aaron Estrada described the feeling as “knowing that you have your brothers behind you and everybody in our program behind you. I think it just helps on a mental level. And ultimately that helps you just play better down the stretch.”

With half of the Final Four set, what can fans in Phoenix expect from the Crimson Tide?

Despite limited minutes due to foul trouble, Alabama forward Grant Nelson showcases his passion with a powerful dunk, contributing two of his eight points. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

Well, a lot of shooting, that’s for sure, especially from the No. 1 scoring offense in the country according to NCAA metrics. Oats and his staff emphasize looking for quick, efficient shots, similar to that of NBA teams.

“We’ve got some different options to get efficient shots,” he said. “They don’t always have to come flying up and down taking quick threes. Quick threes are efficient, if you get them from the right shooters. We’ve got different packages to get efficient shots. Guys come in the summer (and) we teach them how to play efficient. We don’t eliminate inefficient shots from their arsenal right away (because) I don’t want guys second-guessing themselves.”

More importantly, he believes that Alabama can beat anyone with this system. If professionals do it, why can’t a college team?

“They win playing this way in the NBA (and) we’ve just proven you can make a Final Four run,” Oats said.

If they didn’t know before, college basketball fans now know the name Sears. An Associated Press Second Team All-American, he won the West Region MVP after his 23-point performance in the Elite Eight. Not only is Sears dangerous, but so is 6-foot-11 Nelson. The stretch forward can not only step out and make long shots, but he is also a playmaker, resulting in a matchup nightmare for anyone on the court.

Blocking Alabama’s quest for a national championship berth is defending champion UConn. The Huskies have been dominating en route to back-to-back Final Four appearances, and they are making their seventh trip there, having won by an average of 27.8 points per game in their four tournament games.

“We’ve got to figure out how to beat UConn. They went on a 30-0 run I heard tonight. Is that correct? That’s unheard of in the Elite Eight. That’s crazy,” Oats said.” “(Coach Danny Hurley’s) formula is working out pretty well. I’m going to have to figure out that formula myself here soon.”

UConn strikes fear in its opponents with physicality and speed, and can turn on a killer instinct in a matter of seconds. Just ask Illinois, who was tied with the Huskies with just over a minute in the first half of the East Region final, and then proceeded to give up a 30-0 run to open the second half.

With 7-2 sophomore center Donovan Clingan at the helm, Uconn rounds out its team with experienced guards who play with intensity. Clingan is already a handful for anyone, but once you add A.P. First Team All-American graduate guard Tristen Newton, it’s a different story.

Newton is the heart and soul of UConn. He sets the tempo and energy for the team night in and night out, and a game featuring two offenses that seek the best shot at all times should be entertaining for fans.

The most dangerous aspect of the Huskies may be their team-first motto. Every player in the starting five averages at least 10 points per game. At any point, one of these players can take over and change the course of the game.

In a year where offense seems to be outlasting the “the defense wins championships” cliche, these two electrifying offenses should be a crowd-pleaser in Glendale.

Just 11 years ago, Oats was a high school basketball coach in Metro Detroit. This surreal moment means the world to him.

“Somehow I caught enough breaks (and now) I’m coaching in (a Final Four), which is unreal,” he said. “(It probably) gives hope to a lot of high school coaches tonight, that’s for sure.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Addison Kalmbach expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business. Kalmbach has interned in broadcast operations at FOX Sports and as a digital reporter with PHOENIX Magazine and Detroit City FC. He also has done freelance work for R1S1 Sports.

Bennett Silvyn BEH-nit SIL-vin
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Bennett Silvyn expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business, marketing and sports management. Silvyn has interned in marketing and social media for the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission, as a reporter for Arizona Foothills Magazine, in sponsorships for the Arizona Rattlers and in social and digital media for FC Tucson. Silvyn has also reported for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network and The State Press.