In what has been arguably the greatest season in Tide Hoops history, the top-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide (31-5; 16-2 SEC; Kenpom: 2; T-Rank: 2; NET: 2) now has an opportunity to go where only one other Tide team has before - the Elite Eight. The Regional Semifinals have been a Not-So-Sweet Sixteen for Alabama over its history, as the Capstone is just 1-8 in its previous nine trips to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Only the Cinderella run from the 2004 iteration of the Tide was able to get to the Regional Finals. Of course, we all remember just two years ago, when the 2nd-seeded Tide lost a heartbreaker in overtime to a UCLA team that had caught fire - though it was mostly Alabama’s own errors that gave the Bruins a win that night, as the Tide went 11/25 from the free throw line and 7/28 from three. That was a gut-wrencher to watch, even with the great deals from SlingTV that allow you to catch all the March Madness action you can handle.
Anyway, history has not been kind to the Tide on the second weekend of the Big Dance. Enter the 5th-seeded San Diego State Aztecs (28-6, 15-3 Mountain West; Kenpom: 14; T-Rank: 10; NET: 14). The Aztecs are a veteran squad with a lot of size and an elite, physical defense. They play at a slow tempo and like to grind games to a crawl. Erik has aptly named them “Mountain West Mississippi State”, and although I’d argue Tennessee might be a slightly better comparison, Erik’s nickname rolls off the tongue much more smoothly.
The Aztecs will be making only their third ever appearance in the Sweet Sixteen, and their first under head coach Brian Dutcher - who has quietly put together a dominant career over in San Deigo. In six seasons, Dutcher has led SDSU to four NCAA Tournament appearances, a couple of Mountain West titles, and - of course - a Sweet Sixteen. And that’s taking into account that his 30-win 2020 team, which was very much in-line for a 1-seed that season, didn’t get to see what it was truly made of in the NCAA Tournament that year (COVID really screwed a bunch of school’s best seasons ever - shout out to Anthony Grant and Dayton). The Aztecs have won 20+ games every year under Dutcher, as well.
This is going to be a challenge, although it certainly could have been worse - the Tide could have drawn the absolute wagon that is UConn as its 4-seed. As Josh often says, after the First Round, every game is a losable one. San Diego State did have quite the favorable draw to get here itself though, as the Aztecs got to play a pair of mid-major double-digit seeds from South Carolina to advance to the second weekend of the tournament. This will be a significant upgrade in opposition for them.
Either way, if San Diego State brings its ‘A’-game, Alabama will need its best effort to advance.
POINT 5’10 Darrion Trammell (9.5 PPG, 3.2 APG, 2.2 RPG, 97.4 DRtg)
GUARD 6’2 Lamont Butler (8.6 PPG, 3.3 APG, 2.7 RPG, 95.4 DRtg)
GUARD 6’4 Matt Bradley (13.0 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 2.1 APG, 98.1 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Keshad Johnson (7.7 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 96.0 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Nathan Mensah (6.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 90.0 DRtg)
Off of the Bench
GUARD 6’3 Adam Seiko (6.2 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 102.7 DRtg)
WING 6’6 Micah Parrish (7.9 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 95.9 DRtg)
WING 6’6 Aguek Arop (4.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.0 APG, 94.2 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Jaedon Ledee (7.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.0 APG, 94.3 DRtg)
The Aztecs go nine-deep with gritty veterans who really know how to win basketball games. All nine players log at least 16 MPG, they are all solid defenders, and they average nearly three full years of D-1 experience - 21st most in the country. They are just a rock-solid team.
The backcourt is where most of the offensive playmaking happens. Darrion Trammell and Lamont Butler basically split point guard duties, as both are very good distributors of the basketball (Trammell: 23.1% AST%; Butler: 25.6%), which makes it tough to limit their offense, as you can’t just take away or frustrate a single primary ball-handler. And although Trammell averages more PPG, Butler is the better, more efficient scorer (Trammell: 35.1%/30.8%/74.0%; Butler: 41.3%/32.4%/73.8%). Matt Bradley and Micah Parrish are the two true scorers on this team (Bradley: 41.1%/36.6%/79.8%; Parrish: 40.3%/37.5%/78.8%). If either of them gets hot, it’s really tough to beat this team. Adam Seiko is also a highly efficient shooter off of the bench (45.7%/46.0%/78.1%).
The Aztec’s frontcourt is full of physical maulers who don’t give up ground easily. Nathan Mensah is a beast in the paint - both on the boards (17.0% REB%) and in protecting the rim (9.2% BLK% - 17th best in the country). He has a limited offensive game but his size more than makes up for it. There isn’t much drop-off when Jaedon Ledee checks in for him, either (17.3% REB%, 2.9% BLK%). Keshad Johnson is a bit of a stretch-four, capable of stepping out to knock down shots (54.6%/23.1%/62.0%) and running the floor, while still battling on the boards (13.7% REB%) and protecting the basket (2.5% BLK%). Aguek Arop back-fills nicely for him as a similar type of player.
Three Keys to Victory
- Dictate the Tempo. As is usually the case when Alabama plays a slow, plodding team, whoever can best control the pace of the game will likely come out victoriously. The one area Alabama absolutely outshines San Diego State as a team is in raw talent and athleticism, so it would certainly behoove the Tide to flex that advantage and prevent the Aztecs from slowing the game down by getting up-and-down the court. SDSU boasts the 6th-best Adjusted Defensive Efficiency in the country, but it mostly derives from how good they are in the halfcourt. Their guards hassle you (80th in the country in STL%), the wings ands bigs beat you up (40th in BLK%), and then they do a great job of closing out possessions with a defensive rebound (53rd in OREB% allowed). The Tide needs to speed things up and prevent the Aztecs from getting set in the halfcourt.
- Make an Impact from the Three-Point Line. Both of these teams are among the absolute best when it comes to defending the perimeter - Alabama is 3rd in the country in 3P% allowed at 28.1%; San Deigo State is 4th at 28.7%. They both also are nearly unbeatable when the threes are falling on the other end. If Alabama is making shots at a clip that they are capable, best of luck to literally any other team in college basketball. However, if the Aztecs can clamp down on the arc, and they start hitting treys, this is going to be a sweat. As mentioned, Bradley and Parrish are the wildcards in this regard. If they get hot, this one could go down to the wire. Nimari Burnett and Brandon Miller might be exerting a lot of effort on the defensive end tonight guarding those guys.
- MAKE YOUR FREE THROWS. This is going to be a physical battle, and unless the refs just really let things go, there will be a lot of shots taken at the charity stripe tonight. Alabama and San Diego State are 44th and 98th, respectively, in Free Throw Rate. A great way to let the Aztecs hang around, much like UCLA did two years ago, is by missing a bunch of free opportunities. It’s going to be hard enough scoring on this team from the field, the Tide can’t add to that with empty trips to the line.
A second-ever Elite Eight appearance is on the line for the Crimson Tide. A win tonight would pretty much end any debate about the greatest Tide Hoops team of all time, considering that 2004 team that also made the Regional Finals was a middling squad for most of the season. Tonight presents a truly historic opportunity, one that can definitely be attained if Alabama simply plays to its standard. DraftKings Sportsbook has the Tide listed as a 7.5-point favorite over the Aztecs tonight, and I’d be inclined to agree with them. It’s a lot of points to lay against a team this stout defensively, but SDSU hasn’t seen a team like Alabama all season.
The game will tip-off at 5:30 PM CDT and the game will be televised on TBS.