Alabama (14-7) is the most temperamental team in the country. Alabama (5-1 vs. ranked opponents) is also one of the best teams in the country. Oh! Also: Alabama (losers to Georgia, Missouri and Memphis) is, cutely, one of the most underachieving teams in the country. These guys contain multitudes, dude.
"I told our guys before the game, 'We need to get back to having fun,'" Alabama coach Nate Oats said Saturday night, later adding, "when stuff goes bad, just keep playing."
If ever a credo fit this team, it's that one.
Alabama had fun on Saturday, and so did most non-Baylor fans who watched the Tide play the fourth-ranked Bears. The underdog Crimson Tide provided arguably the buzziest win of the weekend with its 87-78 dispatch of Baylor. The victory comes days removed from a baffling road loss to lowly Georgia.
Oats' team now owns six Quadrant 1 wins. The only team with more: the one Bama beat on Saturday. Baylor has seven. Alabama also carries two heavy Quad 3 losses. No team has a résumé with extremes like that. Adding to the confusion is that this school won the SEC's regular season and postseason titles a year ago, earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and brought back a good portion of the roster that helped make 2020-21 one of the best years in the history of the program.
The past two-plus months have brought on whiplash. Highs, lows and mysterious in-betweens. On Saturday we again saw why this group has to be considered — for the remainder of the season — as an irresistible Final Four dark horse just as much as it will be a juicy candidate for a first round upset.
It's always entertaining. Bama's averaging 81.4 points a night, ranking top-15 in offensive tempo and points per game. The Tide's ceiling and watchability has a contagiousness to it; when they are feeling it, they're as must-see as nearly anyone in college hoops. Alabama offered up one highlight after another in bouncing Baylor. A JD Davison breakaway dunk here, a Jaden Shackelford 3-pointer there, an alley-oop to a masked Juwan Gary late, and another heady setup by Jahvon Quinerly.
"The moment's not too big for him, ever," Oats said of Davison, his dynamite freshman.
Even with a constant push for most of the game by Baylor (18-3), Alabama matched and responded.
The Tide have now knocked off three of last year's Final Four teams. Gonzaga went down by nine in Seattle on Dec. 4. A week later, Alabama edged Houston at home. Saturday was Baylor's turn, even with the Bears' critical point guard James Akinjo back; he played 31 minutes. Those 2021 Final Four teams are a combined 51-7. (The other, UCLA, is not on the schedule this season, but the Bruins did knock Alabama out of the field last year.)
More destruction for Baylor at the hands of Alabama: The Tide ended BU's 36-game nonconference winning streak that dated back to November 2019. Baylor won those 36 games by an average of 23.2 points before falling by nine on Saturday. Baylor was also 33-1 against unranked teams in the past two seasons.
Meantime, Alabama came in 2-4 in its previous six. What a riddle these guys are — even as they play well against most of the high end of the schedule.
If you want a reason for why Alabama is so volatile with its results, the biggest one is a lack of Herb Jones. Last year's alpha defender is now in the NBA, and it's obvious this team misses his leadership and IQ. The Tide were the No. 3 team in defensive efficiency at KenPom last season; as of Saturday, they ranked 68th. Another is the 3-point shooting. Alabama's had one game shooting above 40% from 3 this season; last season it did it 10 times.
Yet Shackelford (17.2 ppg) and Quinerly (14.6 ppg) are the highest-scoring duo in the SEC and one of the toughest to handle in the country. Shackelford (19 points, nine rebounds, five assists vs. Baylor) is averaging 21.5 points in his past four games and is taking control of this team at the right time. Davison can detonate a game; he'll be off to the NBA soon enough. Keon Ellis and Noah Gurley give more than mere flashes with regularity.
A dossier dotted with losses to Iona (a good mid-major, but still), Memphis (strangely non-competitive), Missouri (bad for one's diet) and Georgia (seriously, what?) is going to eventually make Alabama a headache of a team to draw, no matter what seed line it lands on. Going into the Georgia game, Oats said, his staff felt like that was a "must-win" given the stretch it's in right now.
"It was huge," Oats said of beating Baylor because of what's coming next.
Get ready for more of these guys. Alabama's going to be front and center in college basketball this week. A humongous road tilt against No. 1 Auburn is next, on Tuesday. The Tigers won at Alabama earlier in January. Bruce Pearl, fresh off signing a $50 million restructured contract, is king of the sport right now. Can he keep Auburn above the SEC and his in-state rival? That could be a rocker ... or Auburn could win by 20 ... or maybe Alabama wins by 12. With this team, who's to say?
No. 4 Baylor, then No. 1 Auburn, then No. 12 Kentucky — and Kentucky is guaranteed to be top-10 when the game gets played. Alabama has to be going through the toughest three-game stretch of any team this regular season.
"We're capable, we seem to step up every big game we've had," Oats said.
They've also stepped down to some opponents. Alabama is a thrill ride. Guaranteed, somehow, to surprise, entertain, disappoint, prove you wrong AND right. You never know what you're going to get, which makes this the perfect team for March. So, see you in the NCAA Tournament, Alabama — however you get there and whatever you look like six weeks from now. There might not be a more dangerous team to its region, or itself, once the Big Dance begins.