Crimson Tide Trying To Slow Down The Uconn Juggernaut In The Final Four

Alabama guard Mark Sears practices ahead of a Final Four college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, April 5, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz. UConn plays Alabama on Saturday. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson )
Alabama guard Mark Sears practices ahead of a Final Four college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, April 5, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz. UConn plays Alabama on Saturday. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson )
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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Alabama coach Nate Oats had to rebuild his roster and replace three assistant coaches. The pieces ended up fitting perfectly.

The fast-and-furious Crimson Tide were among one of the nation's best offenses all season and rolled into the program's first Final Four.

The run has taken Alabama to the desert, where the Tide face a daunting task: trying to stop the juggernaut that is reigning national champion UConn.

“We’re going to show our guys success other teams have had,” Oats said. "The success that other teams have had, we also do those things very well. We just can’t give them these big runs that everybody gives up. It’s a lot easier said than done.”

UConn (35-3) dominated the 2023 bracket, winning every game by at least 13 points for its fifth national championship.

Coach Dan Hurley had to replace five of his top seven scorers from that team, yet the Huskies have been even more dominant in their bid to become the first repeat national champions since Florida in 2006-07.

UConn won its first four NCAA Tournament games by an average of 27.8 points and has won 10 straight tournament games over two seasons by double digits. The Huskies have trailed all of 28 seconds in this year's bracket and pulled off one of the greatest March Madness runs in history against Illinois in the Elite Eight, reeling off 30 straight points in a 25-point win.

Travel delays kept UConn from arriving in Arizona until after 3 a.m. on Thursday, yet failed to dent the Huskies' favored status — they're 11 1/2-point favorites against Alabama (25-11).

“If we play elite offense, elite defense and beat you on the backboard, we’re tough to beat,” Hurley said.

Combating Clingan

One of Alabama's toughest tests will be matching up with UConn big man Donovan Clingan.

The 7-foot-2, 280-pound sophomore has anchored the Huskies' offense all season, averaging 12.9 points on 57% shooting with 7.5 rebounds. He's been even more dominant defensively, blocking and altering shots for anyone who dares to venture into the paint.

Illinois found out going at Clingan doesn't end well, missing all 19 of its shots he contested in the Elite Eight.

Alabama doesn't have anyone with heft to battle Clingan on the block, but has played against elite shot blockers like Purdue's Zach Edey, Creighton's Ryan Kalkbrenner and Tennessee's Jonas Aidoo.

“We played against some real shot-blockers. We’ve had some success with them,” Oats said. “Can you pull them away from the rim? We can play Grant Nelson at the 5 some, if he’s making shots. There’s other things you can do. But we certainly aren’t going to just drive the ball at him and expect to score over the top of him all night. That didn’t seem to work very well their last game out.”

Gifted guards

For all the attention on big men in this year's Final Four, the second national semifinal on Saturday will feature gifted guards on both sides.

Alabama point guard Mark Sears has fit right in since transferring from Ohio two years ago, becoming the Tide's go-to player. The 6-1 senior worked on his shot during the offseason and has seen impressive results, shooting a career-best 43% from 3 while averaging 21.5 points and 4.0 assists per game.

Aaron Estrada averages 13.3 points per game, Rylan Griffen 11.3 and Latrell Wrightsell Jr. 9.0 on a team the led the nation in scoring. Backup guard Jarin Stevenson gave the Crimson Tide a huge lift in the Elite Eight against Clemson, hitting five 3-pointers while scoring 19 points.

UConn's Tristen Newton has been even better since serving as a key cog on last year's championship team, leading the Huskies with 15 points per game. Cam Spencer has fit in well since transferring from Rutgers, averaging 14.4 points, and freshman Stephon Castle has proven he can handle the pressure of playing for the reigning national champions.

Wrightsell's return?

Wrightsell did not play in Alabama's regional games last weekend after suffering a head injury against Grand Canyon in the second round.

The fourth-year guard said he feels 100%, but still must pass a few tests before he's cleared to play against UConn.

The return of Wrightsell could give the Crimson Tide a huge lift. He led the team in 3-point shooting at 43% and has made all 27 of his free-throw attempts this season despite dealing with recurring head injuries.


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