When Rylan Griffen committed to the University of Alabama back in November of 2021, he spoke about trying to help elevate the program once he arrived.

“They’re pretty good right now, but this is just the start,” Rylan said then. “I’m trying to bring whatever I need to bring. The goal is to win the championship, and continue to win SEC Championships.”

Fast forward two-and-a-half years and on Saturday night Rylan was holding a WWE Championship belt adorned with Crimson Tide logos after helping Alabama reach the Final Four for the first time in school history.

Mission accomplished. Well, almost. There are still two games to win. But The Crimson Tide has come a long way and Rylan and Co. have already made school history in the process. It’s been a long-time coming.

Over the last four years, Alabama has fielded one of the best teams in college basketball under coach Nate Oats. The Crimson Tide won the SEC regular season and tournament titles in 2021, advancing all the way to the Sweet 16. Although 2022 saw Alabama take a slight step back, losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Tide rolled to another conference title and the top seed in the tournament a year ago, Rylan’s freshman campaign. However, they once again failed to get over the hump in the Sweet 16.

“Last year we were favored in a Sweet 16 matchup,” Griffen said. “We know you can upset teams like we got upset last year. San Diego State probably felt like they can beat anybody and went on to the national championship after they beat us.”

Following the departure of multiple key contributors for the NBA, expectations for Alabama leveled off for the 2023-2024 season. They spent most of the second half of the season ranked in the teens nationally and finished runner-up in the SEC to Tennessee. But they were bounced from the conference tournament early by Florida. They entered the NCAA Tournament as a four-seed, but have found themselves at the right time.

“I couldn’t be more proud of a group of guys,” Oats said. “We challenged them at the beginning of this tournament that we’re going to have to pick up our defense, and our defense got significantly better. And they’ve just been all about winning. Nobody really cares who’s scoring the points, and get a little frustrated and they just keep playing together. I mean, I’ve got multiple guys telling me to keep other guys in the game. And there’s been no selfishness in this four-game run.”

Though contributions have come from everywhere, a big part of Alabama’s success has been the play of Rylan, who has started 32 of 36 Bama games this season while averaging 11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and nearly two assists per game, all stark improvements over his freshman season that saw him come off the bench. He’s also taken Oats’ defensive challenge to heart and taken on the task of defending some of the best players in the nation night in and night out.

In the NCAA tournament, he’s been a steadying presence on both ends, provisioning outstanding defense while shooting 53 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc.

His 19 points, including five threes on Thursday helped Alabama exorcize their Sweet 16 demons and defeat top-seeded North Carolina to reach the Elite Eight for the first time in 20 years. With the Final Four in sight, the Tide kept rolling, defeating Clemson on Saturday. Rylan had 13 points in that game, while shooting 5-of-8 from the field and 3-of-6 from deep. Additionally, he posted a season-high eight assists, helping set up his teammates for success all over the floor.

One of the rewards was that WWE Championship belt, which Rylan got to carry around the locker room after the game. He even got some acknowledgement from one of his childhood favorites.

The other reward is a trip to the Final Four, the first such trip in school history.

There, the Tide will be tested once again, as they take on the tournament’s number one overall seed, Connecticut on Saturday. The Huskies are the defending National Champions and have dominated all four of their games in the tournament so far, with an average margin of victory of nearly 28 points per game.

But the Crimson Tide have taken the hard path to this point, so they’re unphased by their challenge.

“Not too many people had us going to the Sweet 16,” Rylan said. “Some did, but a lot didn’t. I try not to look at that stuff, but you know, Coach Oats is going to let us know whoever picks against us just to motivate us.”

Tip-off of the national semifinal game between Alabama and Connecticut is scheduled for 8:49 pm ET on Saturday and the game can be seen nationally on TBS.