Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

NIT Semi-Final Preview: Alabama

Colorado against Alabama is a matchup that you would usually expect to see on the gridiron; in fact CU has never faced Alabama on the hardwood.  I don't mean to demean either program, but both schools are known more for their football prowess, which may be part of the reason that 2 deserving squads find themselves in the NIT semi-finals rather than the NCAA Tournament.
Traditionally a matchup native to football fields, CU and Alabama find themselves on one of the most hallowed basketball courts in the land this evening.

The Crimson Tide come into tonight's contest having brushed aside their 3 opponents in the NIT.  Like CU, they never had to leave their home campus as they were awarded a #1 seed, and as a result were barely pushed as they won each game by an average of 15 points. All told through the home stretch of their NIT schedule, they've forced over 16 turnovers a game and held their opponents under 40% shooting. They're playing excellent basketball at the right time, and will prove to be the best non-Big XII team that the Buffs will have played all season.

Much like the Tide, the Buffs played great basketball in a 3-game home stretch to start the tournament.  Handling the likes of Texas Southern, Cal, and Kent St to the tune of over 11 points per game, the Buffs gave the large home crowds a pretty good show.  Now that their heads and hearts are past the disappointment of Selection Sunday, the Buffs have only committed 13 turnovers in the past two games, going long stretches of games playing near-flawless offensive basketball.
Coach Boyle has his Buffs playing great basketball at the perfect time.  From: the BDC

Being the first entrant to secure their trip to NYC has its privileges.  Not only have the Buffs had an extra day of rest, which was sorely needed after most of the team came down with the flu prior to the Kent St game, but they were able to secure posh training accommodations at the New York Athletic Club and are staying at the sparkling Marriott Marquis in Times Square.  They're living large right now, which is befitting of the first Buff team in 20 years to have themselves in a position to win a title of any sort.  Hopefully the trappings of living a New York lifestyle for 2 days wont throw the Buffs off, because they'll need to bring their best game to the court if they hope to beat Alabama.
Cory and the Buffs have been treated to some of the best NYC has to offer, now its time to go to work.  From: the BDC

There's a certain danger in approaching a final four of any sort.  It's perceived as an accomplishment just making a semi-finals, yet there still stands two games between you and a title.  The Buffs have proven themselves to be one of the best teams in school history, but, as of yet, their team accomplishments remain relatively minor in scope.  A finish involving anything less than an NIT title is undeserving for this highly-enjoyable squad.  But, before we can think about that, it's all about the Crimson Tide.

The winners of the SEC West will be an incredibly tough challenge for CU, and I'll say it right now: the winner of this game will go on to win the NIT title Thursday evening.  Tip-off is set for 7pm at the world-famous Madison Square Garden, and the game can be seen on ESPN2 if you, like me, couldn't convince the boss to let you have 4 days off on short notice.
The home of the Knicks is, if only for an evening, the home of the Buffs.

Bright lights and the big city; no matter the venue let's keep it rolling Buffs!

Click below for my preview

Opponents season so far -  Standing between the Buffs and the final are an incredible defensive squad from Alabama.  While CU has been impressive in their march through 3 home games to NYC, Alabama has proven to be equally impressive in their own series of 3 home NIT victories.  Remember, this Crimson Tide squad also had a pretty strong beef against the selection committee for being left out of the Dance.  It was some early struggles in non-conference play that doomed their chances, including an 0-fer in the Virgin Islands Paradise Jam tournament.  Regardless, their 12 conference wins were 3 games better than anyone else in the SEC West, and they have complied 24 wins over the course of the season.  Additionally, they are 3-0 in the past month against opponents who had previously beaten CU; beating Georgia (twice) and New Mexico.
The Crimson Tide put together a strong campaign, and will be a tough out in the NIT semi-finals.

The Crimson Tide pride themselves on their brutally tough, full-court pressing defense.  Ranked as the 7th most efficient defense by Kenpom, they lead the nation in steal percentage (grabbing a steal in 14% of possessions), rank 4th in opponents 2-pt shooting (41%), and are 5th in opponents effective field goal shooting (43.2%).  5 Alabama players average more than a steal a game, and the team as a whole nabs near 10/game.  Not only do they make it tough to bring the ball up the court, but they hound you into bad shots when you do make it to the half-court.  Their only weak point is keeping opponents off the offensive glass, which is good considering that it's a strong suit of CU's offense.
Alabama has hounded opponents all season

Offensively, they rely on grabbing a high number of offensive boards (37%, 24th in the nation) to keep possessions alive, and to give their weak shooters a plethora of opportunities to find baskets.  They lead the nation in percentage of points scored inside the arc, getting an astonishing 62% of their scoring from 2-pt.  They'll look to pound the interior, hoping to grab a bunch of garbage baskets in the paint.  Whether it comes on the first, second, or third shot simply doesn't matter to them.  They have to rely on their offensive rebounding ability cause they struggle at getting to the line and hitting 3's.  They're 318th in 3-point shooting, but, CU's defense has proven to be more than willing to let poor 3-shooting teams overshoot their ability.

Alabama contrasts almost perfectly with CU.  The Buff offense is superbly efficient, ranked as the 10th best according to kenpom, while Alabama features that superb defense.  It's the perfect clash of great defense versus great offense, and should make for an entertaining matchup.

Coaching - Alabama head coach Anthony Grant is one of my favorite young coaching names.  It was Grant, when leading the 2007 VCU Rams, who bested Coach K and Duke in the first round of the Tournament.  It was Grant who recruited the majority of players on that VCU team who's headed to the "real" Final Four this weekend.  He's a great young coach, who has some sterling successes on his record.  I'm disappointed only in his choice of power conference schools to make the jump to; basketball is a distant second in Tuscaloosa, and I think he could've found a higher profile position to jump to.
Coach Grant is a fantastic young coach, and I expect great things from him in the future.

Coach Grant was one of the top assistants under Florida head coach Billy Donovan during the first Gator national title run in '06.  After that he ran the program at VCU, picking up after the departure of Jeff Capel to OU. Coach Grant didn't face that difficult of a learning curve in his first head coaching gig, as he lead the Rams to 3 straight CAA titles and that famous win over Duke in his first year in Richmond.

I really think he has a bright future ahead of him, and I wouldn't be surprised if this NIT semi-final run is a sign of things to come.  Should Coach Donovan ever leave Gainsville, I'd put money on Florida faithful pushing for the Miami native to return to the Gator's sidelines.

Key Players - The Crimson Tide are lead by the frontcourt duo of Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green.  The  pair combine for 30/14 each game, and are a load inside.  Mitchell, a 6-6 sophomore product from Georgia, only had 2 games this season where opponents were able to hold him under 10 points.  His only weakness is at the charity stripe where he only converts 65% of opportunities.  Green, a 6-8 junior from Alabama, has struggled slightly in the NIT, averaging slightly under 10 points/game in the tournament.  He's still capable of big games, exemplified by his 23/10 effort against Vandy in February and his 20/13 game against Georgia in the SEC tournament.  CU will have a hard time with each of these forwards, and I expect big games from both of them.
Mitchell is a high-flyer who CU needs to keep quiet.

The Alabama backcourt is lead by freshman Missouri product Trevor Releford.  The 6-1 point guard has provided back-to-back 20+ point games, and is their energetic leader on the court.  Additionally, Releford knows CU super-guard Alec Burks from AAU days in the Kansas City area. Al even considers Trevor his "little brother."  Hopefully little bro won't get the upper hand on the future NBA star this evening.  Releford averages 11 points/game with good rebounding numbers (3.3/game), and has 3.4 assists/game with a good assist-TO ratio for a freshman (1.31).
Releford (#12) is the spark-plug that allows players like Green (#1) to shine.

Prediction - Considering the daunting press of Alabama, I keep thinking about Mizzou.  The Tigers, while much more guard oriented, feature the same style of pressing defense that CU will face tonight.   CU was able to handle the Tigers at home in January, but, in addition to the altitude factor, they had the services of a healthy Nate Tomlinson to help beat the press.  When CU visited Columbia a month later, they played essentially the entire game without the Aussie point guard, and it showed to the tune of 23 turnovers en route to a 16 point loss.  

With Nate Tomlinson still feeling the effects of a separated shoulder suffered against Cal, I'm extremely worried about this game.  The good news is that Nate's probably going to be able to play; the bad news is that he won't be able to start or play a full compliment of minutes.  The rotation will still be skewed, and, while Shannon has been playing well, any change in the rotation has usually led to a below-average offensive output.

As a result, I expect the Buffs to commit plenty of turnovers early, as they feel their way into the teeth of that Alabama press on a neutral court.  While Alabama isn't an offensive juggernaut, if the Buffs keep giving them extra possessions through turnovers and offensive rebounds then it won't matter how scatter-shot the Alabama O can be at times.

If CU can prove that they can use their superior guards to beat the press, turning the game into an end-to-end sprint, then I like the Buffs chances to make it to the final.  Unfortunately, I just don't see that happening.  CU's season ends one game short as early mistakes make a late comeback bid too difficult.

Alabama 75 - CU 70



Barteld said...

Very poor showing in the final few minutes. I guess it's a good thing to feel this let down but what a horrible way to lose. Talk us down from the ledge when you can....

RumblinBuff said...

It was a tough game to lose. While the first half was awful, the 2nd half effort was deserving of the win. I certainly would've liked something more imaginative on that final possession than the clear-out play, but there was a lot wrong with that final minute.

Shame this squad had to go out that way, but it wasn't as if Alabama cheated us, we just didn't make the plays when necessary.