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NCAA Tournament: How Nick Saban’s football titles helped Alabama become a basketball power

Credit: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

It’s springtime in Tuscaloosa.

What that usually means is Spring Football, NFL Pro Day is coming, the debate about how many Alabama players are going in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft and how many SEC wins will it take for Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide to get back to their rites of passage, also known as the College Football Playoffs national championship.

Football is king in the spring in Alabama, but basketball is emerging from behind the bigger than life shadow this year. That’s because the Crimson Tide hoops team is having an unheard of type season, holding the overall No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and heading into this week’s Sweet 16 as the team that some think can’t lose.

No, this isn’t the first time Alabama was good in basketball, but the Crimson Tide have never been could-win-it-all-good. They’ve been to Sweet 16s and even an Elite Eight appearance before, but this collection of players that Alabama coach Nate Oats has assembled – headlined by a can’t miss Lottery pick in freshman Brandon Miller – are good enough and complete enough to enter the unchartered territory known as the Final Four and they are favored to hoist the championship trophy.

This isn’t exactly ‘Bama football territory as that Big Boys program owns 18 national championships, but the basketball team is ready to put up a down payment on a lot.

The Crimson Tide, who are a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history, continues its path this weekend when it makes its second appearance in the last three years in a matchup with No. 5 seed San Diego State on Friday in Louisville in a South Region showdown.

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Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

If the Crimson Tide make it by San Diego State, they will advance to the Elite Eight for just the second time in program history with a chance to move on to the Final Four for the first time.

And judging by how dominant Alabama has been in 20-plus point wins over Texas A&M Corpus Christi and Maryland in the first two rounds, the Crimson Tide are a strong bet to get there with the winner of the winner No. 6 Creighton and No. 15 Princeton standing in their way on the road to Houston.

“I think we have a maturity about us, a camaraderie, a cohesiveness, the chemistry is great,” said Oats, who has the Crimson Tide in the NCAA Tournament for a rare third straight year. “The more you guys get to know our group, I think the more you are going to love them.”

It’s not like Bama’s basketball success happened overnight. It’s been a process and intentional ascend that has been made possible by the SEC money being pumped into the athletic department primarily from the football money generated from the football television contract. The SEC just announced last month that it was distributing $721.8 million in revenue across its 14 members, which breaks down to about $49.9 million for each institution.

The nation’s premiere college football conference figures to be distributing even bigger payouts once the exclusive Disney $3 billion deal kicks in and Texas and Oklahoma join to make it a 16-member league.

Bama football has always been the priority on the Tuscaloosa campus, but with more money has come the opportunity to invest in facilities and recruiting for other sports like basketball.

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Gary Cosby Jr.-Tuscaloosa News / USA TODAY NETWORK

As a result, the Crimson Tide have been ranked among the top three teams in the nation much of the season and entered this year’s NCAA Tournament as the team to beat as the No.1 overall seeded team. They were the SEC regular-season and conference tournament champs this season and have recorded 31 wins.

Through recruiting and the transfer portal, Oats has brought in a collection of talent that hasn’t been seen around Tuscaloosa before. The centerpiece of the school’s efforts to become an elite basketball program was the successful recruiting of Miller, a 2021 McDonald’s All-American and one of the highest righted basketball players by Alabama.

Miller, who was recently named National Freshman of the Year, is projected to be one of the top two players taken in the upcoming NBA Draft.

Surrounding Miller is a talented cast which includes 7-foot shot blocker Charles Bediako, senior guard Jahvon Quinerly, who began his career at basketball blue blood Villanova, and junior guard Mark Sears, who stepped up his game considerably when he left Ohio University to join the Crimson Tide.

“This is exactly what I envisioned to happen, especially what we were doing in the season,” Sears said. “This is one of the main reasons I wanted to come to Alabama.”

What’s made this season special has been the chemistry and connection among the players. It’s obvious on the court where they function as an unselfish unit.

“I have never seen a team that bond just like us off the court,” Miller said. “And I mean, we’re with each other every day, even at each other’s houses.

“I mean, to feel like that builds everything up just to get closer and closer on the court. It’s how we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and I feel like that plays a big part in who we are today.”

And it opens up the doors to great possibilities. The Crimson Tide have been to eight Sweet 16s in school history, but only made as far as the Elite Eight in 2004.

But right now, they look like they have the path of least resistance, especially when you consider that Houston – the only other No.1 seed left in the Tournament – will have to beat No.5 Miami on Friday night and then take on the winner of No.2 Texas and No.3 Xavier to get back home of the Final Four.

Oats, however, says the best thing his players can do is focus on the task in front of them and that is San Diego State.

“I think they have done a really great job for two straight games here,” said Oats, whose team lost to UCLA in the Sweet 16 two years ago. “First two rounds focusing on what they need to focus on when they are at practice, video, games, whatever it is. And then, you know, the appropriate big picture stuff will take — you know, our guys know they are dealing with on that other stuff.”

Terrance Harris covers college basketball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @TerranceHarris.