Looking back on last season’s instant classic between Alabama and UNC

Alabama v Tennessee
Alabama v Tennessee / Eakin Howard/GettyImages

When Alabama and North Carolina face off in the Sweet 16, the two teams won’t be completely unfamiliar with one another. 

While Bama and UNC haven't played very often historically, they took the court against each other just last season. In November 2022, the Tide toppled North Carolina by a score of 103-101 in a quadruple-overtime thriller. The game, which was obviously decided by razor-thin margins, sent the two programs in different directions for the remainder of the 2022-23 season. 

For UNC, who was ranked no. 1 in the country heading into the matchup, this loss was the second of what would ultimately become four straight. The Tar Heels fell from the top spot to out of the polls entirely quicker than any team ever had, and would continue to spiral from there. North Carolina finished the season 20-13, narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament. While it may be a stretch to call the Alabama game itself a turning point, the Crimson Tide contributed to the losing streak that sent Carolina into a tailspin. 

Conversely, Alabama proved to be a program that was headed in the opposite direction. At the time, it was a promising but unproven bunch that entered the game ranked no. 18 nationally with a 5-1 record. Bama had already notched a quality win over Michigan State and, in hindsight, its only loss was to eventual national champion UConn. Needless to say, it was considered to be the underdog against North Carolina before taking down the Heels in an instant classic.

Alabama would use this win as a launching pad, beating another no. 1 team in the Houston Cougars just two weeks later. By season’s end, Bama had amassed a 31-6 record, one of the best seasons in school history. It was crowned SEC regular season and tournament champions, and was named the no. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament before losing in the Sweet 16.

Fast forward to this season’s rematch between the two teams, and a college basketball traditionalist might say that order has been restored to some degree.

While Alabama is a very good team, it entered the tournament on the 4-seed line and will be an underdog once again. After a disastrous season last year, North Carolina has seemingly returned to form as one of the sport’s most prominent bluebloods. The Tar Heels were the ACC regular season champs and are the top seed in the West region.

Same jerseys, new teams

Although they played just a year ago, the two teams aren’t exactly the same. For Alabama, only three players who logged minutes in the game are still on the roster. Gone are multiple transfers and NBA Draft selections, including no. 2 overall pick Brandon Miller. Ironically, the UNC game was one of Miller’s worst at Alabama, as he shot just 4-21 from the field.

While returnees Nick Pringle and Rylan Griffen didn’t contribute much, Bama guard Mark Sears was probably the best player on the floor that night. In a game marred by inefficiency and sloppiness (the two teams both shot 41% from the field and combined for 40 turnovers), Sears posted a team-high 24 points on 8-13 shooting in 55 minutes of action. Bama may need an even bigger performance from its lead guard this time around. 

North Carolina also returns just three players from last season’s game. Gone is Caleb Love, who Alabama has already played against this year at Arizona. Love finished with a game-high 34 points against Alabama last November, but took an absurd 36 shots to get there.

Big man Armando Bacot posted a double-double as usual, notching 20 points and 10 rebounds. Guard RJ Davis gave the Heels an inefficient 19 points on 24 shot attempts in the loss. Reserve guard Seth Trimble, who didn’t score in last year’s game, is the only other holdover for North Carolina. 

This Sweet 16 matchup is interesting in that these two teams that rarely square off played such a memorable game just last season. While both teams look different this season, many of the key pieces will be very familiar with one another. Coaches Nate Oats and Hubert Davis, star guards Mark Sears and RJ Davis, and even Nick Pringle and Armando Bacot down low will remember last year’s game vividly. 

This one might be just as stressful to watch with an Elite 8 up for grabs and elimination on the line, but Alabama fans hope the final outcome will be the same.