Rick Pitino leads his upset-minded Gaels against the SEC champs in Indianapolis
When you think about the Alabama Crimson Tide in the postseason, you're probably more inclined to think about the football team. After all, Bama has won three of the last seven national championships. But the basketball program shouldn't be forgotten either. Especially since they're about to make their 22nd NCAA Tournament appearance.
Alabama actually has quite the history in the Big Dance. Although the Crimson Tide have never won a national title or reached a Final Four, they have enjoyed some measure of success. They reached back-to-back tournaments in the '70s (1974, 75), made six straight appearances in the '80s (1982-87), reached five tournaments in six seasons in the '90s (1990-92, 94-95), and started the 2000s with five consecutive berths (2002-06). They've been to the Sweet 16 eight times (last in 2004), and reached the Elite Eight back in 2004. This will be Bama's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2018, and just the second since 2012.
This year's Crimson Tide team, however, is different. Head coach Nate Oats, in just his second season, has already done wonders with this program. Under his watch, the Tide won both the SEC regular-season (first since 2002) and tournament titles (first since 1991) and enter the NCAA Tournament ranked fifth in the country.
On Saturday, Alabama will take on a team that's no stranger to the Tournament themselves that's led by a somewhat familiar face. The Iona Gaels will be making their fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, 14th overall, and their first under head coach Rick Pitino. The Gaels were limited to just 17 games because of the pandemic and punched their ticket to the Big Dance with their victory in the MAAC Tournament.
Now Iona will try and do something it has only done once — win in the NCAA Tournament. The Gaels are 1-13 with their only victory coming back in 1980. Pitino, the former head coach at Louisville, Kentucky, Providence, and Brown has led his teams to the NCAA Tournament 22 times, has won two national championships, and made it to seven Final Fours, so he's certainly no stranger to what it takes to win in March.
But it's Alabama who enters this NCAA Tournament with the goal of reaching the Final Four. Can Pitino and Iona pull off the big upset?
East Region: No. 15 Iona Gaels (12-5) vs. No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide (24-6)
Time: Saturday, March 20 at approximately 4 p.m. ET
Where: Hinkle Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)
Spread: Alabama -16.5
Keys for Iona
Guard Isaiah Ross was the MAAC's leading scorer this season (18.4 ppg). Forward Nelly Junior Joseph was second in the conference in rebounding (7.6 rpg) and field-goal shooting (.595) while also leaving his mark as a shot blocker (1.5 bpg). Iona guards Berrick JeanLouis and Asante Gist also ranked in the top three in steals while the latter averages close to four assists per game. The Gaels will need better than average production from their top four players if they want to beat Alabama.
Iona was one of the MAAC's top offenses, ranking second in scoring (72.2 ppg), field-goal percentage (.445), and 3-point shooting (.355), while leading the way from the free-throw line (.743). They enter this game with momentum, having won seven of nine.
Keys for Alabama
Guards Jaden Shackelford (14.2 ppg), Jahvon Quinerly (12.7 ppg), and John Petty Jr. (12.3 ppg), along with forward Herbert Jones (11.2 ppg), are all scoring in double figures for the Crimson Tide. Jones also leads this team in assists (3.4 apg), rebounds (6.5 rpg), blocked shots (1.1 bpg), and steals (1.8 spg). These four get some help from guard Joshua Primo (8.1 ppg, 3.4 prg), and forward Jordan Bruner (6.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.3 apg, 1.3 spg). Depth is just one thing that makes this Bama team so dangerous.
Alabama typically doesn't have much problem putting points on the scoreboard. The Tide are second in the SEC from beyond the arc (.351) and the conference's top rebounding team (40.5 rpg). The SEC champs have won nine of 10, eclipsing the 80-point mark in six of those victories.
Alabama is 4-3 all-time against teams from the MAAC, including a win over Iona back in 1989. But this will be the Crimson Tide's first game against a MAAC program since falling to St. Peters back in 2010. Including that loss to Bama', the Gaels are 5-16 against the SEC. Nine of Iona's last 10 NCAA Tournament losses have come against "Power Six" conference teams (Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC, Big East, Pac-12), including Tennessee back in 2001.
The Tide are 5-5 in their last 10 NCAA Tournament games and have won 12 of their last 20 non-conference games. Rick Pitino has the Gaels heading in the right direction, but it'll be Roll Tide in this game.
Prediction: Alabama 79, Iona 73
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.