Nate Oats was hired to revive the Alabama program, and the second-year coach is one victory away from equaling the Crimson Tide’s most successful NCAA Tournament run.
Second-seeded Alabama looks to win a third game in the East Region when it faces 11th-seeded UCLA (20-9) on Sunday in a Sweet 16 matchup in Indianapolis.
The Crimson Tide (26-6) are attempting to join the 2004 squad as the lone teams in school history to reach the Elite Eight. The 2004 team was a No. 8 seed and it posted a stunning second-round upset of top-seeded Stanford along the way.
“Really happy for our guys,” Oats said after Monday’s 96-77 victory over Maryland. “It’s been a long time since (Alabama) played in the Sweet 16. These guys have really bought into playing the right way.”
Alabama’s players are definitely aware that the table is set for a historic victory.
“Everybody was super excited and hyped. It’s a big milestone in our program,” sophomore guard Jaden Shackelford said after the win. “First Sweet 16 since 2004, so it was big for us. We like to soak up our accomplishments. So we’ll soak it up for the day and prepare for UCLA throughout the week.”
Shackelford, who averages a team-best 14.3 points, stood out with 21 points and knocked down 5 of 8 3-points shots. Overall, the Crimson Tide were 16 of 33 from behind the arc and held a dominating 40-19 rebounding edge.
A pleasing sight against Maryland was the sharpshooting by John Petty Jr. The senior guard made four 3-pointers and scored 20 points after making just 8 of 34 shots — including 4 of 19 from 3-point range — over the previous three games.
The Crimson Tide will be hoping Petty (12.5 average) resembles the player who has made a team-high 75 3-pointers when they take the floor against the Bruins, who have already won three games and will be playing in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the past seven NCAA Tournaments.
UCLA recorded an overtime win over Michigan State in the First Four and followed up with double-digit victories over BYU and Abilene Christian.
The Bruins stood out on defense during Monday’s 67-47 second-round victory over Abilene Christian. UCLA held the Wildcats to 29.8 percent shooting from the field and 4 of 19 from 3-point range.
The Bruins allowed 44 first-half points against Michigan State before ramping up the intensity.
“We’ve embraced that since the halftime of the Michigan State game,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “We’ve been an elite defensive team for our last five halves of basketball. And on the board was, ‘Defense was why we’re alive, and defense is why we’ll survive in this tournament.'”
Making the Bruins’ tourney run more impressive is that they lost four straight games to Pac-12 foes prior to barely making it into the 68-team field. All four of those teams — Colorado, Oregon, USC and Oregon State — also made the tournament.
So expectations for UCLA were certainly low among outsiders, but junior power forward Cody Riley said the players never got down on themselves.
“I think it shows the resilience of the group, the togetherness,” said Riley, who had 12 points and 12 rebounds against Abilene Christian. “We never broke down and separated or nothing like that. We always stayed together, had plenty of team talks about how important it is going down late in the season to stick together and just never lose hope at all.”
Bruins sophomore guard Johnny Juzang scored 17 points against the Wildcats and is averaging 22.3 points during the tournament. His season mark is a team-best 15.1.
–Field Level Media