Alabama's special season might take a back seat to another storyline to begin the NCAA Tournament.
That's because the first-round opponent for the Crimson Tide is Iona, which is coached by Rick Pitino.
The teams meet Saturday in Indianapolis.
Pitino is taking his fifth school to the NCAA Tournament, having previously danced with Boston University, Providence, Kentucky, Louisville.
Pitino, who is in his first season with the Gaels, has guided two teams -- Kentucky in 1996 and Louisville in 2013 -- to national championships.
This is mostly new territory for Pitino, who often took high-seeded teams to the NCAA Tournament.
"I've been the flip side," he said, noting the Gaels' No. 15 seed in the East Region compared to Alabama's No. 2 seed.
But his Iona players have found value in this matchup.
"My guys have seen Alabama, and they think it's going to be a fun game because it's going to be an up-and-down game," Pitino said of the likely pace. "Their definition of fun may not be the same as mine."
The Crimson Tide (24-6) are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018.
"They deserve it. They've played the right way," Alabama coach Nate Oats said of his players. "They've bought to what we're trying to get them to do."
It already has been a remarkable season for the Crimson Tide, who won the Southeastern Conference's regular-season title and then captured the tournament crown for the first time since 1991. The No. 2 seed matches the best in program history, a mark also achieved in 2002.
The Crimson Tide own a six-game winning streak, defeating five different teams during that span. Alabama has lost just three times since Christmas.
Alabama excels on both ends of the court. The Crimson Tide are ranked second in adjusted defensive efficiency, which weights the number of points allowed per 100 possessions by the quality of offense faced. Alabama allows 86 points after ranking 114th last year by allowing 99.5.
Offensively, the Crimson Tide average 79.6 points per game, tied for 27th nationally. They are led by Jaden Shackelford (14.2 ppg), Jahvon Quinerly (12.7 ppg), John Petty Jr. (12.3 ppg) and Herb Jones, the SEC's Player of the Year and Defensive of the Year, who averages 11.2 points and a team-high 6.5 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game.
This is the first time an Oats-coached team will face a squad coached by Pitino.
"I remember having his coaching tapes back in high school when I knew I wanted to coach," Oats said.
Iona (12-5) emerged as the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion as the No. 9 seed.
"There was more pressure in that tournament," Pitino said, knowing it was win or the season would be finished. "The pressure was incredible. That was something I hadn't felt before."
So, the Gaels have an impressive feat.
"I don't know a whole lot about them, but I assume they are going to be well-coached," Oats said. "They are going to play hard. We are going to have to come out ready to play."
Iona is led by Isaiah Ross' 18.4 points per game, while Asante Gist averages 13.3 points and a team-high 3.7 assists per contest and Nelly Junior Joseph adds 11.4 points and a team-leading 7.6 rebounds per game.
Pitino is no stranger to Alabama, having spent many years in the SEC as Kentucky's coach. Pitino took a team to the Final Four for the first time with Providence in 1987, defeating Alabama in that Sweet 16 round that year.
Alabama won the only previous meeting with the Gaels, that coming in 1989 in Santa Clara, Calif.
This season, Iona had a lengthy coronavirus-related pause, not playing a post-Christmas game until Feb. 12. The Gaels didn't meet another team in the NCAA Tournament field.
"It's good we don't play until Saturday because we need practice time," Pitino said.
Because of Iona's downtime, Pitino watched quite a bit of basketball from other parts of the country. He said he was naturally drawn to some SEC matchups.
"I actually watched them play about five or six times this year on television," Pitino said of the Crimson Tide. "... They are a high-percentage, high-powered offensive basketball team."
The Iona-Alabama winner takes on the winner of 10th-seeded Maryland and seventh-seeded UConn on Monday.
--Field Level Media
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