Alabama Basketball: Previewing top-seeded North Carolina

Charleston v Alabama
Charleston v Alabama / Steph Chambers/GettyImages

Alabama Basketball will likely have to play its best game of the season to beat North Carolina in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night. 

This West Coast matchup will require acclimation on the part of both teams, but a Bama squad that has already notched two wins in Spokane might be a little more comfortable operating on Pacific Standard Time.

Many have said that UNC is not a traditional no. 1 seed, and it's fair to say that there is a gap between the Heels and the rest of this year’s top-seeded teams. Still, they are a formidable opponent that is capable of winning a national championship.

Bama has not beaten a team of the caliber of this Carolina squad all season, and must approach this game accordingly.

Assessing North Carolina's personnel

The Tar Heels are led, at least offensively, by a quartet of weapons. Guard RJ Davis, the ACC Player of the Year and a first team All-American, is one of the best scorers in the nation. Big man Armando Bacot has been a walking double-double for the better part of five years, averaging 14 points and 10 boards in 168 career games. Alabama simply does not have a post player that can contend with Bacot. It will either have to use a committee approach or concede the paint and divert resources to win in other areas.

On the wings, Cormac Ryan and Harrison Ingram present two very different sets of challenges. Ryan is primarily a spot-up shooter who has been streaky this season, but can get hot as evidenced by his 29-point, 7-three-pointer outing against Alabama in the NCAA Tournament two years ago when he played for Notre Dame. That remained Ryan’s career-high until just recently, when he hit six triples and scored 31 points on only 12 shot attempts against Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. 

Ingram is also a major perimeter threat, connecting on nearly 39 percent from downtown this year. However, the biggest issue he presents is his physicality. At just 6’7”, he averages 8.8 rebounds per game and leads the ACC with 10.9 boards per game in conference play. Ingram often resembles a vintage Rick Barnes forward at Tennessee or even a Kelvin Sampson forward at Houston with the way he uses his body. When paired with Bacot, he gives the Tar Heels two truly elite rebounders on the front line. 

Beyond these top four, North Carolina has several other contributors of note. True freshman point guard Elliot Cadeau is extremely quick off the bounce and has impressive court vision and poise for such a young player. However, he has struggled with his outside shot to the extent that teams have recently stopped guarding him out there. In the second round, Michigan State ignored him entirely on the perimeter and Cadeau still went 0-4 from three-point range. Perhaps this is something Alabama can use to its advantage. 

While he is a more confident shooter than Cadeau, backcourt mate Seth Trimble is similar in that he prefers to drive. Trimble is a phenomenal athlete and has shown the ability to be a lockdown defender. UNC may try to put him on Mark Sears, but no one has been able to slow down Sears all year. Regardless, Trimble can only guard one person at a time. Nate Oats has stockpiled shot-creating guards on his roster for this very reason. 

Lastly, Jalen Washington and Jae’lyn Withers are high-energy frontcourt players off the bench for North Carolina. Neither should hurt the Tide too much with their offense, but both will continue to make it difficult for Alabama in the paint. It will be an uphill battle on the glass for the Crimson Tide all night. 

What are Alabama's chances?

A Bama defense that has been poor for much of this season will look to find ways to limit the Tar Heel offense. North Carolina only has three consistently reliable three-point shooters with significant volume in Davis, Ryan, and Ingram. As a result, the Tar Heels sometimes use lineups with just one or two outside threats on the court at a time. This could provide opportunities for Bama to sag into the paint to limit driving lanes and provide additional help on Bacot.

As a no. 1 seed, of course, North Carolina will be favored in this game. That doesn’t mean the Crimson Tide doesn’t have a solid chance to win outright. This is a good Alabama basketball team led by a coach in Nate Oats that is well on his way to being great. With its offensive capabilities, Bama can beat anybody in the country in a one-off situation. Additionally, while it is still a very good and complete team, North Carolina has looked far from unbeatable relative to the typical 1-seed. 

Alabama hasn’t played particularly well against a high-quality opponent all year. To some, that may be a bad sign. To the optimists among us, it might just mean the Tide is overdue.