Sometimes college basketball approximates ballet. Other times, it’s bare knuckles and elevated elbows.
Friday night, for instance.
Alabama’s Crimson Tide arrived at the KFC Yum! Center as the nation’s No. 1 team, the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and a solid favorite to temporarily upstate king football at Nick Saban University.
And they left it exposed, if not thoroughly embarrassed. They were beaten and arguably bullied by a San Diego State team that went toe-to-toe without giving ground, suffocating ‘Bama’s shooters, disrupting its transition game and supplying spectators with another example of what makes March so maddening and so marvelous.
When it was over, and the fifth-seeded Aztecs had advanced to the Elite Eight with a 71-64 upset victory, San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher invoked Louisville’s Muhammad Ali in explaining how his players had pulled off the improbable.
“We talked about confidence and the key to confidence is being fearless,” he said, “and I thought we were fearless tonight.”
Yet the story of this game could more neatly be capsulized in the timeless wisdom of another heavyweight champion.
“Everybody has a plan,” said Mike Tyson, “until they get punched in the mouth.”
Physically challenged by an opponent of limited refinement and extraordinary toughness, Alabama experienced its worst shooting night of the season (23 for 71 from the field; 3 for 27 from three-point range). It had eight of its shots blocked, scored zero fast-break points, and watched its nine-point lead evaporate when San Diego State came off the mat for a 12-0 run midway through the second half.
After the Aztecs’ Adam Seiko made a three-point shot to break a 48-48 tie with 8:43 remaining, Alabama would never regain the lead. And as its play became more frantic and its shot selection less discerning, the Crimson Tide forced their fans to wonder how much they might get for tickets to Sunday’s regional championship game.
“They kind of got us off our drives,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said of the Aztecs. “. . .We needed to do a little bit better job being able to make better rim decisions. They’re a tough, physical, big, strong, experienced team, and especially in the first half we didn’t come out prepared.
“It’s somewhat on us, and somewhat the players have to get comfortable with the way they played.”
With nine players logging significant minutes – and none playing more than 30 – San Diego State relied on fresh legs and veteran savvy to counter Alabama’s athleticism and exploit its inexperience. Four of the players Dutcher used Friday were fifth-year seniors, and all of them were at least juniors in terms of eligibility. Alabama, meanwhile, started two freshmen, Brandon Miller and Noah Clowney, who combined to miss 21 of their 25 shots from the field.
Miller, a presumed NBA lottery pick, made three field goals while committing six turnovers and launching increasingly ill-advised jump shots. Clowney finished with more fouls (5) than points (3).
There was more to this story than maturity and muscle, but when the Aztecs were down by nine points, they persevered and without panic.
“They’ve been in a million of these situations over their careers,” Dutcher said. “And so they didn’t shy away from the moment. They weren’t nervous. They just had a quiet confidence about them that they knew they had enough time to play themselves back into the game, and that’s what they did.”
Leading their charge was senior guard Darrion Trammell, who started San Diego’s comeback with a pull-up three-point shot and then picked off a Miller pass for a fast-break layup.
”We talked about it in the huddle,” Trammell said of a daunting deficit against the nation’s top-ranked team. “I was telling the guys that it’s March; we’re going to go on our run. . .I truly believe that, and I just took the opportunities they gave me.”
Two weeks ago, the final score would have been more startling. But by the end of Friday evening, all four of the tournament’s No. 1 seeds were finished and Texas was the only 2 seed still standing. Sunday’s South Regional championship game will match the fifth-seeded Aztecs against sixth-seeded Creighton for a berth in the Final Four.
“It’s just parity,” Dutcher said. “That’s what it is. You know, there’s not a lot of difference between the best team in the country and the worst team in the country. You’re seeing that on this stage.”
Sometimes, the team considered the country’s best gets pushed around. Sometimes, basketball is ballet, but not always.