Today’s ‘Bama vs. ‘Nova matchup is more than just another basketball game. Second round NCAA tournament slot be damned, this is Alabama’s National Championship.
The Crimson Tide basketball program has not been a storied dynasty of multiple national championships; in fact, Alabama has never won a national championship in basketball, and advanced to the Elite Eight only once after defeating number one seed Stanford and then Syracuse on their way to losing to eventual National Champion Connecticut in the 2003-2004 season. But over the years it has been competitive.
The program has produced many successful NBA stars, among them, Robert Horry, Antonio McDyss, , T.R. Dunn, Gerald Wallace, and some more notorious than others (Latrell Sprewell). Alabama players have played with 9 NBA championship teams, earned six All-Star selections, six All-Defensive Team honors, and three All-Rookie honors.
The Elite Eight showing and brief number 1 national ranking in 2004 notwithstanding; arguably the Tide’s best was the 1982 team. Their highest national ranking that year was 5, and their overall record of 24-7 was best in the SEC, and they defeated a loaded Kentucky team in for the conference championship.
‘Bama’s Achilles heel that season though was inconsistency and turnovers, something that may haunt this year’s team if they are not careful. But when the Tide was on they were virtually unstoppable. Point Guard Ennis Whatley (1983 NCAA All-American), who went on to play 12 NBA seasons with 7 NBA teams, was magic on the floor and played toe-to-toe with one Michael Jordan in the Midwest Regional Semifinals in 1982. Jordan and Whatley were freshman. Ironically, Whatley later played two years in Jordan’s shadow with the Chicago Bulls before moving on to the rest of his journeyman’s NBA career.
Ennis could get the most stoic crowd on their feet with his showmanship, no-look passes and incredible ball handling and leaping ability. I have never seen a more physically talented player, although ‘Bama’s current point guard and magician Collin Sexton is inching toward that pedestal. Ennis could and would dunk the ball on breakaways.
At power forward, Alabama had Eddie Phillips, a finesse player when needed, but a Phi-Slamma-Jamma in crunch time who could produce thunderous dunks if left alone for even a blink of an eye with the ball near the hoop. Eddie was the quiet leader of the team and could play with nearly every other best player they faced at his position.
Another phenom on the team was Bobby Lee Hurt, center, and constant presence in the paint. He could just as soon block your shot as look at you. All-Time leading Alabama field goal percentage leader (63%), he had the sweetest and almost automatic turnaround jump shot I have ever seen, to this day.
Setting up in the paint with his back to the basket, his too-long arms stretched high above his 6’9” frame, getting him the ball there was an almost guaranteed bucket. His method was always the same if someone was on his back, fake one way with an elbow in the chest, pivot away and then release a high arching, impossible to block, soft-as-a-feather shot which would more times than not elicit a sweet, “String music!” call from long time SEC basketball analyst and announcer, Joe Dean, as it swished through the net.
Bobby Lee frequently got the better of SEC opponent, Charles Barkley, aka the “Round Mound of Rebound,” whenever ‘Bama played Auburn. Sir Charles was confounded and rejected many a time by Bobby Lee, though they were a well matched pair overall.
Rounding out the frequent starters were Mike Davis, guard and reliable shooter to Whatley’s flash and dash, and Phillip Lockett, a 6’ 11” goal keeper who could match up against the best big men in the paint, but knee issues saw him needing frequent stints on the bench. With Lockett, Bobby Lee and Eddie Phillips on the floor at the same time virtually no other team in basketball at the time could match up.
The Midwest Regional Semi-Final vs. a stacked North Carolina team, who were the eventual tournament champs, included Jordan, Matt Doherty, Sam Perkins and James Worthy. The game was see-saw. When Jordan was out, Whatley and ‘Bama crept in. When Jordan was in, North Carolina pulled ahead, as if shifting into another gear. The margin of defeat for ‘Bama was five points.
Only a freshman at the time, Jordan was obviously the best player on the court, and probably in all of the NCAA, if for no other reason than his leadership, as he was mature and confident beyond his years. The Tar Heels lost two games that season, and only beat Georgetown by a point in the championship game, but Jordan was Mr. Refuse-to-Lose. Dominant, defiant and breathtaking.
The college game has changed however, since 1982. It is faster, brasher, more entertaining with current hairstyles (Alabama obviously leads this category), super talent and acrobatic displays unlike any before.
Alabama has perhaps two of the best players in the game today, both freshman and both with nothing to lose. Collin Sexton and John Petty can explode and blow open any opponent.
But taking care of the basketball will be an essential key to defeating a Villanova team that just does not make mistakes.
Villanova is not big, and ‘Bama can go bigger (6’9” Donta Hall, 6’11” Daniel Giddens, 6’ 9” Galen Smith). Villanova is not deep (tending to stick to a seven man rotation), and ‘Bama has depth, experience and talent. Villanova can and does shoot the three point shot well, and ‘Bama tends to rely more on penetration and opportunity shooting inside the three point line. Good team defense on both sides should help add up to a classic tournament nail-biter.
Historically, this is usually as far as an Alabama basketball team gets. But these are the days of surprise and opportunity. Alabama is scrappy, impossible to intimidate, and just might put together something special this afternoon, for this is their championship game. A win today would propel this team into the stratosphere of Alabama Basketball, and then everything else after would just be gravy on the biscuit.
I know, I know, one step at a time. But having watched that 1982 ‘Bama vs. NC tournament game, and having attended the University of Alabama from 1980-1985, I have Alabama basketball on the brain, and it’s been that long (2004 notwithstanding) since I have felt this excitement.
Roll Tide, ‘Bama! Make us proud!