TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — At this point in the season, fans of No. 8 Alabama basketball might experience a little deja vu when taking a look at the Crimson Tide's schedule.
Last season, Alabama faced No. 3 Gonzaga at the Battle in Seattle before returning home to host Houston, then hit the road once again to face Memphis. While the Crimson Tide managed to win its games against the Bulldogs and the Cougars, the Tigers proved troublesome.
This season, the schedule consists of the same three teams, just in a different order. This Saturday, Alabama will play on the road at No. 1 Houston, then return home to host Memphis next Tuesday before turning around and facing No. 18 Gonzaga at the C.M. Newton Classic in Birmingham, Ala. It's sure to be a tough grind of games, but the Cougars are first and foremost on the minds of the Crimson Tide.
"I like the stretch we've got, though," Alabama head coach Nate Oats said on Thursday. "I think it's going to show a lot about our team. I mean the next — starting Saturday — the next eight days will really show kinda where we're at, what are areas we need to improve on.
"Whether we win or lose this game Saturday, we're obviously going to compete as hard as we can to win the game. They're No. 1 in the country — it'd be a huge win for us on the road."
Last season, Alabama's game against Houston came down to the wire in what Oats referred to as "an unbelievable game." In the game's final seconds inside Coleman Coliseum, Cougars forward Fabian White Jr. attempted a layup, which was swatted away by Crimson Tide guard JD Davison. While Houston believed it to be goaltending by Davison, the foul went uncalled and Alabama escaped with a narrow 83-82 win.
The controversial ending resulted in Houston players knocking over trash cans on their way to the locker room. Now, a year later, the bitterness of the loss certainly hasn't been forgotten by the Cougars or their coaches.
Alabama enters the game at Houston as a heavy underdog, but that doesn't stop Oats from seeing the opportunities that the game provides — win or lose.
"If you don't win the game, I think how far have we come since that UConn game?" Oats said. "How far have we come since the [North] Carolina game? How much further do we have to go? And honestly even if we win, they're going to expose some new areas that hopefully we got a mature enough group to learn off wins and losses both."
Oats joked that he wouldn't mind the game ending up like the four-OT thriller that the Crimson Tide won over the Tar Heels late last month.
"I wouldn't mind another one of those — especially if it came out the right way like the last one did," Oats said. "At least if you played one of those it wouldn't be after playing two games in the three days leading up to that."
Alabama has a tough three-game stretch ahead of it, but it provides the team with multiple opportunities to learn about itself. With a win, the team can be proud of its accomplishment while focusing on areas that must be improved moving forward. With a loss, it pretty much speaks for itself: the team will have plenty of shortcomings to work on as the team gets ready for SEC play.
Regardless of the outcome against Houston, Alabama will have two more ranked opponents before SEC play begins later this month. With that in mind, the next two weeks will serve as a proving ground for the Crimson Tide team as it finds its place at the turn of the new year.
For Alabama forward Noah Gurley, learning from both what this team has accomplished this year as well as its shortcomings last year both play a part in the team's approach to its upcoming three-game stretch.
"We learned from last year," Gurley said. "We know what inconsistency gets us and then we got some fresh faces that are thirsty to prove what they can prove. We gotta approach every game the same way, and I think that's where we kinda slipped last year. But even this year, I think we've done a pretty good job of it.
"Our intensity slacked a little bit last game, but other than that — Coach Oats has been really vocal about defensive consistency being the first thing that matters when you get on the court. It starts with the honcho, and he puts it all into us and we're all believing in it because we've all got big goals this year."
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