By By Joseph Goodman / Al.com
Nate Oats couldn’t hold back his emotions, which is often the case with Alabama’s excitable basketball coach.
When John Petty Jr. made Alabama’s 16th and final three-pointer against Maryland, Oats shuffled out onto the court and reached his arm wide to pat his senior shooting guard on the back. Oats swung but came up empty, and on this night in Indianapolis it represented a rare miss for the Crimson Tide.
Alabama’s first NCAA Tournament game was almost too suspenseful to stomach. The second, a 96-77 runaway victoryon Monday against the Fighting Terrapins in the Round of 32, was all fun all of the time. Now Alabama looks like one of the hottest teams in the tournament going into the Sweet 16.
What a show, and what a difference a round makes. Alabama was 16 of 33 from three-point range against Maryland at Bankers Life Fieldhouse after making just five triples against Iona in the round of 64. Alabama’s bench started the barrage, scoring six of the team’s eight in the first half. Petty and Jaden Shackelford then found their bearings and it was over early and onto the Sweet 16.
“The offense was bound to come,” Oats said.
Spoken like an old math teacher. In fancy analytical basketball talk, they call that regression to the mean.
I’m just going to call it glorious hellfire from the scorching fingertips of the best Alabama basketball team in program history.
Petty had 20 points and four three-pointers. Shackelford had 21 points and five from distance. Those guys were still a little tight early, though, if we’re being completely honest. It was once again senior Alex Reese (three from behind the arc in the first half), who provided the spark for Alabama with his shots and his positive energy.
Reese is Alabama’s MVP through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament thanks to his poise and confidence.
“He came in with a positive mindset,” Shackelford said of Reese. “He’s a big reason why we won these last two games.”
Great teams in March find different ways to win from one round to the next, and Alabama has now won five consecutive postseason games dating back to the SEC tournament. It says something about Alabama’s quality that its best player, who was the SEC player of the year, struggled so badly against Maryland but his team still won in a rout.
Herb Jones, who led Alabama to its nervy first-round victory, had just four points in nine minutes in the Round of 32. He got in foul trouble early, and didn’t impact the game beyond the first seven minutes. Make no mistake, though, those early minutes were important. Jones’ defense helped set the tone for the entire game.
“When we get stops, our offense is hard to guard,” Shackelford said.
And it’s not like Maryland was awful. Far from it, really. At one point midway through the second half, Alabama had a 21-point advantage despite Maryland shooting 50 percent from the field.
Oats sought out the advice of Rick Pitino after struggling against the Hall of Fame coach’s Iona Gaels. The first rounds are always the toughest, Pitino said. Wise words. Just ask three-seed Texas, which lost to Abilene Christian, and also two-seed Ohio State, losers to Oral Roberts.
Alabama survived the first weekend of the bubble, and now it’s onto the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2004. This is Alabama’s ninth trip to the Sweet 16, and, infamously, the Crimson Tide has only advanced to the Elite Eight that one time in 2004 when it lost to eventual champ Connecticut.
“It’s a big milestone for our program,” Shackelford said. “We dreamt we’d be on this stage early on in the year.”
UCLA is next for Alabama, and the Bruins are among the Pac-12 teams that have taken this NCAA Tournament by force. The West Coast league is 8-0 going into the second weekend with UCLA, USC, Oregon and Oregon State in the Sweet 16. The SEC has Alabama and Arkansas remaining after LSU and Trendon Watford lost to Michigan on Monday.
Alabama doesn’t play until Sunday, so its players and coaches must now figure out what to do with themselves while being mostly quarantined at their Indianapolis hotel. Oats says he has gained about 10 pounds in a week by eating snacks and drinking milkshakes from the local sandwich shop, Potbelly.
Staying fit might be a concern, but keeping the team loose shouldn’t be a problem. After watching Petty light it up in the second half, Alabama looks like a team peaking with confidence at the perfect time. Oats knows it, too. That’s why celebrated Petty’s final three-pointer with such great enthusiasm in the closing minutes.
“He’s making shots now,” Oats said. “It’s the John Petty we all know.”
The nerves that governed Alabama’s offense on that opening Saturday are gone, and if Petty can stay hot, then Alabama will be tough to send home.