It’s really no secret that Alabama could never count on its defense all season.

Or its ability to handle nonconference powers during the holiday season.

Or its ability to stop Florida from scoring.

Or its ability to score against — or beat — Tennessee.

But the Crimson Tide still fought their way to a 3rd Sweet 16 in 4 seasons on the strength of something they could always count on. And that’s the comforting fact that no matter who they played, conference or nonconference, home or hostile environment, Alabama always had the better point guard.

Or maybe even the best darn point guard in the country.

Bama had Mark Sears, the other team didn’t, and the Tide were going to prevail most of the time because of it. Sears almost willed the defensively challenged Tide to an SEC regular-season title, and he poured in a combined 56 points against Charleston and Grand Canyon to lead 4th-seeded Alabama (23-11) to Los Angeles and a West Region semifinal showdown with top-seeded North Carolina (29-7).

Which brings us back to that singular luxury that Nate Oats’ team could fall back on throughout the 2023-24 season. On Thursday night (9:39 p.m. ET, CBS) at Arena, in the land of stars, the Crimson Tide might not have the biggest star and they might not have the better point guard, either. Because North Carolina will have RJ Davis and Alabama won’t.

It doesn’t mean the Tide can’t hang with the Heels or even pull the upset and advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in 20 years. It just means that after all these months of having the decided advantage at the point guard position in most every instance, Bama will meet its match.

Sears will meet his match.

The 6-1 Sears will stare back at the 6-0 Davis at tipoff, the ball will go up and the highlight reel will be on high speed for 40 minutes. Because these 2 basketball maestros aren’t just the best players on their teams, and they aren’t just the backbones of their teams.

They both perform with equal flair and relentlessness.

They both have crazy hair and dizzying motors.

They’re both seniors and have that healthy desperation to keep their collegiate careers going for a little bit longer.

They’ve both put up a boatload of numbers and won a lot of games without winning a national title.

And when they get through driving the basketball down each other’s throats in LA, only one of them will still have a shot at that elusive championship.

There will be others on the floor on Thursday night, other really good players who could single-handedly tilt the outcome one way or another. But more than likely, whoever gets the better of this mega-sized showcase of smallish superstars will have their team playing Saturday for a trip to the Final Four.

That’s just the cold truth, and for Alabama it all comes wrapped in the realization that its much-bantered-about defense will be tasked with the immense challenge of at least slowing down Davis — you know, a little bit. A portion of this arduous task will fall on Sears himself, and that will only make the Tide’s task of taking down UNC that much harder, considering how much energy Sears will be expending on the offensive end just to keep Bama in the game. Sportsbooks think it will be close; UNC is favored by just 3.5 points, via FanDuel.

But you can make a strong bet that Bama’s other bevy of guards — be it Rylan Griffen, Aaron Estrada or Latrell Wrightsell Jr., assuming he’s good to go with those lingering head injuries — will all take their turn trying to corral Davis and at the same time preventing the ACC Player of the Year and Naismith Player of the Year finalist from taking over the game and sending the Tide home. Because as great and as fearless as Sears is, if he’s asked to do too much on the defensive end against the freewheeling Davis on Thursday night, then Alabama will probably be denied that elusive berth in the Elite Eight yet again.

Sears wasn’t his conference’s player of the year like Davis was, getting beaten out for the honor by Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht. But Sears was a no-brainer 1st-team All-SEC selection, and earlier this month he was named 1 of 5 finalists for the prestigious Bob Cousy Award, which is given to the top Division 1 point guard in the country. The other 4 finalists, UConn’s Tristen Newton, Purdue’s Braden Smith, Marquette’s Tyler Kolek and Houston’s Jamal Shead, have all quarterbacked their teams into the Sweet 16, too, so Sears is firmly among point guard royalty in college basketball.

Davis was somehow not named a Cousy Award finalist after being on the preseason watch list last fall, because there could only be 5 finalists and, well, everyone who follows college basketball closely knows full well that Davis is arguably the best in the nation at his position. In fact, Davis is arguably the best player in the country, point guards or otherwise, and everyone knows that, too.

So is Sears.

And a few weeks ago, Davis and Sears were named among 15 finalists for the Wooden Award, which goes to the best player in the country. Last week, when the Associated Press All-American teams were released, Davis was on the 1st team and Sears was on the 2nd team. Their similarities are seemingly endless, right down to their glossy stats. Sears averages 21.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists, while Davis averages 21.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Sears has shot it better (50.7% from the field, 43.5% from 3-point land) than Davis (43.6 and 41.1) this season, and not surprisingly they’re both outstanding free throw shooters, with Davis at 87.2% and Sears at 85.8, so they can break your heart at the end of games from the field and from the foul line.

They both give you over a steal per game, with Sears at 1.7 and Davis at 1.2, and both have the uncanny ability to play fast and fearlessly without turning the ball over much, with Davis at only 1.5 turnovers per contest and Sears at a mere 2.5.

And maybe the best part for Oats and UNC coach Hubert Davis? Both Sears and Davis play their aggressive brand of defense while still averaging less than 2 fouls per game, so they’re seemingly always available, which is wonderful for the Tide and Heels and not so wonderful for their frustrated foes left breathless trying to keep up with the 2 of them.

The 1 glaring difference between Sears and Davis has nothing to do with them and everything to do with who’s around them. While Sears has a solid supporting cast, he was the only returning starter from last season’s team that won the SEC regular season and tournament titles and was the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Brandon Miller wasn’t in T-Town anymore to be Sears’ co-star this season and when the SEC awards list was released earlier this month, Sears was the only Bama player honored.

By contrast, Davis can lean on forward Armando Bacot, who was an honorable mention AP All-American, 2nd-team All-ACC and ACC All-Defensive Team. He can lean on versatile forward Harrison Ingram, who was 3rd-team All-ACC. He can even lean on guard Elliot Cadeau, who blossomed quickly and made the ACC All-Rookie Team. Heck, Bacot even got 1 vote for ACC Player of the Year and 4 votes for ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Sophomore guard Seth Trimble was in the running for ACC Sixth Man of the Year and Davis captured ACC Coach of the Year honors, not that Oats didn’t do an incredible job leading the Tide back to another Sweet 16.

But you get the point about these star point guards. Sears was tasked with much more responsibility on a game-to-game basis this season than Davis, and more than likely Sears will have to do much more than Davis on Thursday night in Los Angeles to will Alabama to an upset victory.

That’s just the cold reality of this unfamiliar situation for Sears and Alabama.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, because all the pressure will be on the favored Tar Heels.

In fact, this unique challenge for Sears and the Tide means they’re still breathing in this NCAA Tournament, with a chance to get where last season’s team was supposed to go.

In a weird season with a lot of wins but a lot of blown defensive assignments, when the Crimson Tide couldn’t count on a whole lot except for Sears’ excellence, it could very well be Sears who finally powers them through that Sweet 16 brick wall.

Even if he’s not the best point guard on the floor.