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Why not us next season?

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Even through the Alabama men’s basketball program lost in the 2017 NIT last week, the hype surrounding the program clearly is ratcheting up.

Alabama already was being hailed as a rising team in a rising conference, but with South Carolina’s stunning upset of Duke on Sunday night, the SEC has landed three spots in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. With the Crimson Tide having defeated the Gamecocks twice, the season suddenly is looking a little better.

For the first time in years there’s actually real cause for optimism.

RELATED: John Calipari says Tide will be Top-25 caliber team next season

Although coach Avery Johnson’s second year in Tuscaloosa ended a lot like his first, 19-15 overall, Alabama had a winning record in conference play (10-8), played its best basketball at the end of the season and boasts a roster returning a lot of players.

As of now the only departures are graduate students Corban Collins and Bola Olaniyan, and senior forwards Jimmy Taylor and Shannon Hale. Olaniyan started 22 games and led the team in rebounding, while Collins and Taylor started 14 each. Hale was suspended from the team in February.

Meanwhile, the incoming recruiting class may be the best in program history, ranked No. 4 nationally by Rivals.com, No. 5 by Scout.com and 247Sports and No. 6 by ESPN.

The Alabama class is led by prize prospect Collin Sexton, a McDonald’s All-American listed by 247Sports as the seventh-best prospect overall, with shooting guard John Petty listed 30th. The three other members of the class — power forward Alex Reese, shooting guard Herb Jones and center Galin Smith — played in the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Classic over the weekend.

Plus center/forward Daniel Giddens, a transfer from Ohio State, will be eligible to suit up again as a junior.

This past season Alabama played six games against teams that made the Sweet 16, losing at No. 24 Oregon on Dec. 11, 65-56; No. 23 Florida on Jan. 10, 80-67;…

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