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So football now has its Final Four. They play basketball, too.
How about a big Rollllllll Tide?
Alabama deserves it after the past weekend. In Atlanta on Saturday, the football team was sweeping aside Georgia for the SEC championship and confirming its reservation in the College Football Playoff. More than 2,600 miles away in Seattle, the basketball team watched the first half at its hotel, hopped on the bus for the ride to a hostile arena far from home, then proceeded to stun No. 3 Gonzaga 91-82 with a flurry of 3-pointers. It was the program’s first road win over a top-5 opponent in nearly 18 years.
“It’s a good day to be a Roll Tide fan,” coach Nate Oats would say when it was over. Viewing the football game on TV, he figured he was watching Alabama quarterback Bryce Young clinch the Heisman. “To me it looked like he did. I’m not a voter. We had some pretty good basketball players put on a show, too.”
It’s really too bad the Zags had already lost to Duke. Or else Alabama would have had the unfathomable distinction of beating the No. 1 teams in football and basketball on the same day.
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So a lot of crimson was on center stage this weekend. The football program, that claims 18 national championships. The basketball program, that has been to the Elite Eight but once. “We’ve got a little catch-up to do in that regard, but we’re trying to keep the program up to . . . standard,” Oats said. “Our guys are doing a pretty good job of it right now.”
Indeed. The Tide won their first SEC tournament in 30 years last March, went to the Sweet 16 before being evicted in overtime by UCLA, and have started 7-1 this season, averaging 86 points a game, sixth in the nation. The football team, by the way, is fourth in scoring. They have now beaten three teams — South Dakota State from the Summit, Drake from the Missouri Valley and Gonzaga from the WCC — picked to win their conferences. Their only loss was to another predicted champion, the MAAC’s Iona. Ahead are the American’s Houston, Mountain West’s Colorado State and SEC’s Kentucky, meaning seven conference favorites are on the schedule. Alabama is going at that heavy duty with something of a fearless offense, putting up 30 shots a game from 3-point land.
The latest and most significant win was no accident. The Tide led Gonzaga 51-35 at halftime, the largest deficit the Zags have faced after one half in nearly 13 years. When Gonzaga crept to within four points with five minutes left and the Seattle crowd screaming for more, JD Davison and Jahvon Quinerly calmly buried 3-pointers to quell the rally. For the day, Alabama made 13 of them, six by Jaden Shackelford, on his way to 28 points.
“Big time game, big time players show up,” Oats said. “We’ve got a tough crew — 18,000 people, with 17,500 probably cheering against you.”
How was your Saturday night? ?#RollTide | #BlueCollarBasketball pic.twitter.com/AdHYGCjoB1
Down went Gonzaga, for the second time in nine days. To put that in context, the Zags had lost three regular season or league tournament games in their previous 87 contests. That can happen when the schedule is demanding. Alabama was their fourth top-16 opponent in 22 days.
“I’d like to thank Gonzaga for having us out here to play,” Oats said. “They don’t shy away from anybody. They didn’t have to play us. With the way we play we can be dangerous at times, with how many 3’s we shoot. They knew that.”
The Zags struggled at the free throw line, going only 13-for-25. That was ironic, given the team they were facing. Free throw shooting has been an Alabama headache. The Tide came in 318th in the nation in percentage, and it must still be painful for them to remember how they missed 14 of 25 in that UCLA loss. But Saturday, they were 16-for-22.
It was an Alabama day. On both sides of the continent.
While the Wolverines over in the football building have been on a roll, the basketballers have been trying to get past some early-season zig-zagging. Three losses in five games — including by 18 to Arizona and 21 to North Carolina — had sent formerly No. 4 Michigan sliding down the rankings to No. 24 with a 4-3 record, suggesting the Wolverines were not quite ready yet to match their preseason expectations. The 3-point shooting had been woeful, 293rd in the country and 20 percent in the three defeats. Star center Hunter Dickinson had not been the presence his team needs.
But the 72-58 victory over San Diego State was a promising sign of progress. The 5-3 Aztecs, an annual contender in the Mountain West, are nobody’s easy target. Dickinson was 1-for-9 lifetime in 3-pointers going into the game but went 3-for-3, part of his 23 points. He added 14 rebounds, three steals, three assists and a block in 39 minutes. Tonic for Juwan Howard. “From start to finish he was ready to compete,” Howard said. “Having the big fellow on the floor on both ends of the floor, we’re just a better ballclub, it’s that simple.”
Michigan’s 11-for-20 shooting as a team in 3-pointers was another encouraging trend. Howard does not want a shy team. “I’ve always been preaching to our guys, if you’re open let it fly,” he said. “Don’t think once about, ‘if I miss a shot . . . ‘ If you get that same shot again or any other open shot, take it. With that, we’re going to live with the results.”
These results were much easier to live with.
The coach who brought San Diego State to Ann Arbor was Brian Dutcher, a former Wolverine assistant who had not been back in decades. One of the players he helped recruit to Michigan: Juwan Howard.
The winningest Division I coach under the age of 40? That would be Cincinnati’s new man Wes Miller with 191, nearly all of them at UNC Greensboro.
The two leading active career shot blockers in college basketball? Transfer Bearcats named Hayden Koval and Abdul Ado, with 610 swats between them. Ado is 24 years old and Koval 23, two reasons Cincinnati opened the season with an average age of 21.56, the fourth oldest roster in the nation.
The guard whose father, mother, two brothers and sister all played Division I basketball? Jeremiah Davenport, second leading scorer for the Bearcats.
Put all that together and you have 7-2 Cincinnati, which may not be the national sensation the football program has become, but is working to push last season into the past. The Bearcats went 12-11 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.
Miller arrived this season and intended to infuse second wind into the program. You could see that with the 20-point whipping Cincinnati put on Illinois and how the Bearcats pushed Arkansas to the wire the next night. He wanted to take on anybody if he thought it would help develop his team. Take last week. Miller agreed to play at Miami, only 50 minutes up the road but a neighbor the Bearcats had avoided for eons. Few bigger fish see the upside of going on the road to tempt an upset by a Mid-American Conference team.
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But Miller did, and the Bearcats survived 59-58, Miami missing two last-second shots to win. “I’ve had a lot of people chattering about, `why the heck are we playing Miami at Miami? What kind of an idiot coach would schedule that game?’” he said. “Even if those shots had gone in, I’d be ticked off right now but it would have made us a better team because you’ve got to have these experiences to grow and we’re not going to be afraid to play anybody.”
Miami appreciated the chance. The RedHawks averaged 1,455 fans a game in the pre-pandemic season of 2019-20, and the largest home crowd this season had been 1,163. They drew 7,285 to the Cincinnati game, their biggest gate this century. “This is what college basketball’s all about,” Miami coach Jack Owens said.
By the way, Cincinnati has also beaten Georgia 73-68. The football team would love to get that chance. Speaking of the Bulldogs . . .
It has not been the smoothest cruise in Athens for Tom Crean. He’s 44-54 in his fourth year at Georgia and the Bulldogs just endured a four-game losing streak to start this season 2-5. But maybe the winds have changed, after they upset No. 18 Memphis last week 82-79.
It was Crean’s 400th career victory and the hugs he had for his family afterward felt special for lots of reasons. “This isn’t easy on anybody,” he said. “You just have to persevere.”
Georgia had only two second-half turnovers in the Memphis win. “A victory in itself,” Crean called it. The Bulldogs began the game 303rd in the nation in turnover over margin, with some ugly numbers in defeat – 16-4 against Virginia, 19-8 against Wofford.
All part of growing pains, Crean figured, since the team is almost all newcomers. The top five scorers are transfers. The sixth is a freshman. “We needed something good to happen for us because we’ve been so close. We had to have a belief,” he said. “You can talk confidence all you want while you’re playing close, but you really don’t have real confidence until you come across with a win in a close game.”
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So 3-5 certainly feels better than 2-5, and Crean hopes the trend is upward. But he has another major problem brewing. Who to root for when Georgia plays Michigan in the Orange Bowl? Georgia is his school and signs his paycheck. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is his brother-in-law.
Mike Lopresti is a member of the US Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, Ball State journalism Hall of Fame and Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame. He has covered college basketball for 43 years, including 39 Final Fours. He is so old he covered Bob Knight when he had dark hair and basketball shorts were actually short.
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