Alabama was expected to be in the Sweet 16 as the overall top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Few thought the teams standing between the Crimson Tide and a trip to the Final Four would be No. 5 seed San Diego State, sixth-seeded Creighton and 15th-seeded Princeton.
A win over Alabama (31-5) could elevate any of those schools to the status of March Madness legend. Coach Nate Oats understands the pressure his team faces when it faces San Diego State Friday night as it seeks its first Elite Eight berth since 2004.
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“We’ve taken enough losses against good teams and some that weren’t as good to where they know what they have to do on any given night,” Oats said. “From here on out I think we’re going to be playing really good teams.”
Friday’s other semifinal in Louisville features Creighton (23-12) against Princeton (23-8), which has proven anything is possible with its wins over No. 2 seed Arizona and No. 7 seed Missouri.
The lower-seeded teams that advanced in the South hardly came out of nowhere.
San Diego State (29-6) has been ranked in the AP Top 25 most of the season and enters with 12 wins in 13 games, including the past six. The Mountain West champions Aztecs have held their own against Power Five schools, beating Stanford and Ohio State before falling to Arizona and Arkansas during a challenging November slate that helped prepare them for this stage.
They’ve averaged nearly 66 points per game during their current streak — which includes a 23-point, second-round rout of No. 13 seed Furman — while holding five of six opponents under 50 points. SDSU faces a tall task against an Alabama squad averaging 82.3 points per game.
“We’re just playing good basketball, and our opponent has always been ourselves,” Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher said Thursday. “Our standards are to play up to whatever our capabilities are, regardless of the opponent. So if we play really good basketball, we’ll have a chance to win the game.”
Princeton has also won six straight. Beating the Pac-12 Conference Wildcats 59-55 was impressive enough for the Tigers, who went on to dominate Missouri of the Southeastern Conference 78-63, the biggest margin of victory ever by a No. 15 seed.
The Ivy League champions are in their first Sweet 16 since 1967 and embracing the underdog label, even though they feel like they belong.
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“Personally, I love it,” senior guard Ryan Langborg said. “It allows us to play with a confidence not only amongst ourselves, but amongst our fans and allows us to get the crowd involved. Which I think always helps with momentum.”
Princeton will meet a Creighton squad in its second Sweet 16 in three years. The Bluejays went 2-4 against Power Five schools during the regular season but regrouped in the NCAA Tournament to beat North Carolina State and No. 3 seed Baylor, the 2021 national champion.
Alabama’s status as the No. 1 overall seed has expanded its athletic profile beyond the powerhouse football program. Crimson Tide football coach Nick Saban was at practice this week.
“I feel like we have a winning school,” All-America freshman forward Brandon Miller said. “It’s just not about the football team at Alabama. I feel like there’s Alabama basketball, Alabama football, Alabama track. All the organizations there, I feel like it’s just a winning program.”
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Football still loomed over the news conference, with TVs in the media room showing Alabama’s pro day as basketball players arrived to answer questions.
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Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said his seniors had received welcome extensions to hand in their theses on heavy subjects, such as this offering from Keeshawn Kellman:
“My thesis is on how professional sports performance in a season can affect social behaviors in a community,” said Kellman, a sociology major. “Like, crime rates, voter turnout, things like that. It’s been a lot trying to balance this along with the tournament, but we’re going to get it done.”
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The winner of this regional can feel pretty good about its national title prospects.
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The last two times the KFC Yum! Center hosted Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games, the eventual national champion played there. Virginia beat Purdue 80-75 in overtime for the South Region title in 2019 on the way to its first NCAA crown. Second-seeded Villanova did so three years earlier, topping No. 1 seed Kansas 64-59 during its run to a second national championship.
The Associated Press contributed to this article