Alabama coach Mark Gottfried has a story and he's sticking to it, gosh darn it.
"We're not real good," he said Monday afternoon.
Perhaps folks were buying that in the preseason when he was rattling off all the starters lost from a year ago — four to be exact. But they're rolling their eyes now.
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His Crimson Tide, a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, survived a last-second shot by Southern Illinois in the opening round and then overcame a 13-point deficit in the final minutes to stun No. 1 seed Stanford. Alabama advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1991 and plays defending champion Syracuse on Thursday in Phoenix.
"I've seen them a few times," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said, "and they look awful good."
Only if you were listening and not watching.
The second round of the tournament put the madness into March Madness as it rarely has before. In addition to the Tide, No. 9 seed Alabama-Birmingham upset the overall No. 1, Kentucky, No. 7 seed Xavier over-whelmed No. 2 Mississippi State and unheralded No. 10 Nevada manhandled No. 2 Gonzaga.
"It just shows you the balance," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. "It's incredible. It's unbelievable."
But can any or all of these teams keep it going?
Historical footnote: A No. 8 seed has won it all once, Villanova in 1985. A No. 7 and 9 seed have made it to the semifinals, Virginia in 1984 and Pennsylvania in 1979, respectively.
"A lot of times, a team like that will get to the Sweet 16 and you think that's about all they can do," Boeheim said of this unexpected Fab Four. "But I've watched these teams play; they're pretty good."
Nevada, the WAC tournament champion, is in the tournament for the first time in 19 years. The Wolf Pack caught attention with a 14-point win over Kansas in December.
Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, whose team plays Nevada on Friday, said he noticed Nevada during its 93-79 loss at UConn in the Preseason NIT.
"I was very impressed, and I'm not shocked at all to see them in the Sweet 16," Hewitt said Tuesday.
UAB parlayed coach Mike Anderson's reinvention of the "40 minutes of Hell" his former coach and boss, Nolan Richardson, made famous into a share of the Conference USA regular-season title.
The Blazers have been fitted with Cinderella sneakers following their 102-100 win against red-hot Washington and the 76-75 win against Kentucky.
"They know everybody's labeling them that, but our guys always thought they were a good basketball team," Anderson said Tuesday as his team readies for No. 4-seeded Kansas on Friday. "We're a focused team. We're playing hard. We're leaving it on the floor, and the kids are having fun. . . . And the funny thing about winning; it breeds confidence."
Xavier, which plays No. 3 seed Texas on Friday, might be the hottest team of all, winning 15 of its last 16 games. That includes a 20-point rout of then-undefeated Saint Joseph's in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Saint Joseph's and Duke are the two top seeds remaining.
"They've got a great opportunity to go play for a national championship," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said after his team's 89-74 loss to Xavier on Sunday in Orlando.
All four of these surprise teams boast upperclassmen in the backcourt, a rare commodity these days of increasing early entrance to the NBA. That value is accentuated in close tournament games where experienced decisionmakers often are the differencemakers.
Xavier has Lionel Chalmers at the point and Romain Sato as his running mate. Both are seniors. Sato has been steady. Chalmers scored a game-high 25 points against Louisville and followed with a career-high 31 against Mississippi State.
"If this is not my time, I'm not going to have a time," Chalmers said Sunday.
UAB has four fifth-year seniors who play, including point guard Mo Finley, its leading scorer. He had 20 against Washington and 17 against the Wildcats, including a game-winning 17-foot jumper with 12.2 seconds left.
"As the game was winding down, a lot of things went through Mo," Anderson said.
Nevada's star guard Kirk Snyder, the WAC player of the year, is a junior. Hewitt said Snyder is "as confident an offensive player as I've seen all year, with exception of Tim Pickett from Florida State."
Against Gonzaga, he had 18 points, nine rebounds and six assists. But Todd Okeson and Garry Hill-Thomas are senior guards who also have come up big.
"The press gives us the Cinderella label; we thought we belonged here all along," Okeson said.
Alabama is led by junior guard Earnest Shelton and senior point guard Antoine Pettway, whose runner in the lane with 5 seconds left put his team into the second round.
"He's done a great job and obviously, he's a different story," Gottfried said of Pettway. "He wasn't a McDonald's All-American. He's just been phenomenal for us this year. He's made so many big shots. He's made so many tough plays. He leads our team in the locker room, on the bus, he's always talking to the guys. . . . He's got such a fire in his belly, it's contagious. He has emerged as a guy who our other players respond to him because they know how much it means to him to win."
And keep winning even if you're not real good, right coach?
Well, that's his story.