No. 8 Alabama set to face No. 1 Houston in monumental top-10 matchup

Mathey Gibson, Staff Reporter

After an impressive 2-1 trip to Portland, Oregon, for the Phil Knight Invitational, Alabama basketball caught the attention of fans and basketball pundits across the country.  

While the Crimson Tide (7-1) escaped with an up-and-down 78-65 victory over South Dakota State last weekend, Nate Oats’ squad looks to turn the college basketball world on its head — hoping to become only the second team in Associated Press poll history to defeat two No. 1 teams in the same regular season with an impending rematch against the top-ranked Houston Cougars set for Saturday. 

The two teams will meet for the second straight season, as the Cougars (8-0) fell to Alabama last season 83-82 at Coleman Coliseum. After a controversial last-second JD Davison block, legendary Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson refused the postgame handshake line with the Crimson Tide staff. 

“We were fired up. They were fired up, taking a loss, too, at the end of that game,” Oats said. “So, they’re definitely going to be ready for us coming down to Houston, that’s for sure.” 

Alabama is playing in an AP top-10 matchup for the first time since 2002 when the No. 8 Crimson Tide defeated No. 3 Oklahoma in New York City. At that time, Sampson was the head coach at Oklahoma. 

Oats has won four straight games when coaching against a team who played in the previous year’s Final Four — 3-0 last year, 1-0 this year — while the Crimson Tide are 4-7 all-time against the No. 1 team in the country. Alabama most recently defeated then-No. 1 North Carolina on Nov. 27. 

Heading into Saturday’s contest, the fourth year head coach knows there’s room for improvement.  

“We said coming into the year, we’ve got to be a better defensive team and we’re significantly better than we were last year,” Oats said. “Some of that is our length and athleticism and some of it is our guys understand the importance of it — and it’s going to be really important Saturday.” 

Leading the way for the Cougars is a dynamic backcourt of Tramon Mark, Jamal Shead and Marcus Sasser — a trio of tough, shifty guards hardwired to score.  

Prior to the season, Sasser was named the AAC preseason player of the year and earned a place on the preseason first-team. Five-star freshman forward Jarace Walker was named the preseason freshman of the year, while Shead was named to the preseason second team. 

As the Crimson Tide is chomping at the bit to face a loaded Houston roster, it might still be without one of its coveted offseason transfer additions — Dominick Welch. 

“He’s not doing anything live in practice yet,” Oats said. “It’s kind of a day-by-day deal. We’re getting him more and more not live stuff to see how he handles it.” 

In 33 starts last season with St. Bonaventure, the senior guard averaged 12.3 points, six rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.3 steals per game. A consistent 3-point threat for the Bonnies, sporting a 37% career clip from deep, the 6-foot-5 sharpshooter has yet to suit up in an Alabama uniform. 

Led by stoppers such as Noah Clowney, Charles Bediako, Nimari Burnett and Jaden Bradley, can the Crimson Tide defense withstand a motivated Cougar team on the road? Will projected lottery pick Brandon Miller and Ohio transfer Mark Sears carry the load offensively once more? If history is any indication, the stars might just be aligning. 

Tipoff between No. 8 Alabama and No. 1 Houston at the Fertitta Center is set for Saturday, Dec. 10, at 2 p.m. CT on ABC. 

Questions or comments? Email Austin Hannon (Sports Editor) at [email protected]