The University of Alabama men’s basketball team will be making its 21st appearance in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night against Virginia Tech. You might see it listed as the 20th appearance in some places because the NCAA vacated the Crimson Tide’s 1987 appearance due to agents — a problem that didn’t suddenly strike college basketball in 2017 but was well in place 30 years earlier. Nonetheless, vacating an appearance does nothing but confuse people who remember 1987 perfectly well, from two wins in Birmingham to an upset loss to Providence (coached by Rick Pitino and led by future nemesis Billy Donovan).
That means 20 times in the past, Alabama had had an opening game. That hasn’t always meant what it does under today’s familiar 68-team, neutral-site bracket. In the 1970s you could be dropped onto an opponent’s home court for an opening game (Alabama’s very first NCAA game in 1975 was against Arizona State in Tempe) or seeded into the second round (as Alabama was in 1976, which we will discuss later).
But here is a look at the five most disappointing NCAA openers in Crimson Tide basketball history and then the five best. This isn’t a ranking of all the Crimson Tide’s NCAA games — no Indiana ’76 or Loyola Marymount ’90 or Stanford ’04, games which came in later rounds. Instead, this is a list (personal choice) of the times when Alabama stumbled out of the gate — and the times it got off to a rousing start.
First, the bad news …
This performance, a 73-50 loss, was so bad that it has been erased from most people’s memories. The only Alabama team that had Ennis Whatley, Buck Johnson, Bobby Lee Hurt and Mike Davis all on the same roster came out flat in Houston, shot 30 percent, barely defended and folded its tent in the second half.
Another loaded Alabama roster, but Bruce Pearl’s No. 12 seed Milwaukee team made 12 of 21 3-pointers, led by as many as 16 points in the second half and never let Alabama back into the game, winning 83-73 in Cleveland. Milwaukee beat a good Boston College team in the next round and made it to the Sweet 16.
Florida Atlantic, 2002
Yes, Alabama won this game 86-78 but the highest-seeded UA team ever looked sluggish despite 33 points from Mo Williams and didn’t carry any momentum into a second-round loss to No. 10 seed Kent State.
Illinois State, 1984
An ugly 49-48 game on an ugly freezing night in Lincoln, Nebraska. To his credit, Wimp Sanderson never lost another NCAA opener, with one exception …
South Alabama, 1989
A big win for the Jaguars in 1989 and a tough 86-84 beat for a good Crimson Tide team. A personal opinion: of the 600 or so Alabama basketball games I’ve covered, this was the most – how best to put it? – let’s say the most oddly officiated contest I have seen, and not just because of USA’s 35-10 advantage at the foul line.
Now on to Alabama’s best opening-game wins to start an NCAA Tournament (in reverse order) …
5. Southern Illinois, 2005
Memorable for Antoine Pettway’s game-winner and for what followed in Seattle and Phoenix.
4. Penn, 1995
Probably closer than it should have been — overtime, no less — but memorable for Antonio McDyess’ 39-point, 19-rebound explosion.
3. St. John’s, 1982
The Crimson Tide downed the Chris Mullin/Bill Wennington St. John’s team on Long Island. Eddie Phillips had 16 points, although you’d never know it because the CBS cameras never panned away from Lou Carnesecca on the sideline.
2. Marquette, 2006
The One Shining Moment of Jean Felix, who hit 8 of 11 3-pointers in a fast-paced, exciting 90-85 win in San Diego.
1. North Carolina, 1976
Alabama’s first NCAA Tournament win and still one of its best as Leon Douglas (35 points, 17 rebounds) and crew rolled over the Phil Ford/Mitch Kupchak Tar Heels. Had the tournament been seeded the way it is today, this Alabama team was Final Four quality.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.