TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- JaMychal Green kept flashing back to this time last season as he and his Alabama teammates watched the NCAA tournament bracket filling up.
The big difference is the Crimson Tide’s name was finally called Sunday, for the first time since 2006.
“All I could think of was last year how we were just waiting for our name to be called and it never got called,” said Green, Alabama’s lone senior. “I was just getting nervous and finally they called our name. There was just so much joy in the room.”
The Tide (21-11) drew a No. 9 seed and faces No. 8 Creighton (28-5) on Friday at the Midwest Regional in Greensboro, N.C., the last corner of the bracket announced. The winner will likely face top-seeded North Carolina.
Coach Anthony Grant beefed up his nonconference schedule significantly after last year’s team was shut out with an identical record and 12 SEC wins but mediocre power ratings. On Sunday, he got the result he was hoping to cap his third season despite some off-the-court troubles that threatened to derail the season.
“I didn’t know where we would end up, but I felt pretty good about our chances to get in, in light of what we’ve accomplished over the course of the season,” Grant said. “Once our name popped up, there was a sense of joy for our guys.”
It could have gone the other way if Alabama hadn’t responded well to a wave of suspensions.
The Tide, which lost 66-63 to Florida in the second round of the SEC tournament, went 6-4 after a season-ending suspension of No. 2 scorer and rebounder Tony Mitchell. Green, the team leader in those categories, was then suspended for four games and guards Trevor Releford and Andrew Steele both were held out of one.
Alabama weathered the storm, thanks partly to the maturation of four freshmen who play significant roles. And Green at last gets to play in an NCAA tournament.
“We had a lot of obstacles that we had to pass,” he said. “It’s just been a long, tough season for us, but we hung in there and we stayed together as a team and we just kept fighting. It just feels so good to finally make the tournament.
Creighton earned an automatic bid and first NCAA berth since 2007 by winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament for the seventh time in 14 years.
Alabama will have to rely on Grant and assistant coach Antoine Pettway -- a former Tide player -- for pointers on the NCAA tournament experience. Steele can also turn to brother Ronald, a member of that 2006 team under Mark Gottfried.
“Everything I’ve heard, they say it’s the best experience in the world,” Andrew Steele said. “We’re excited to finally get a chance to go through that.”
He was beginning to wonder if it would come before Alabama’s name was called, ending what he described as “flashbacks of last year.”
The Tide was the lowest seed of the four SEC teams that got in.
“It was a couple of hard years but I think we’ve got Alabama basketball where it needed to be and where it’s supposed to be,” Green said.
Grant led VCU to the NCAA tournament twice in three seasons and was an assistant for Florida teams that went to eight straight, making the national championship game twice and winning once.
Grant’s first lesson to his players: “There’s an excitement to getting in, but really what you remember is winning.”