The Crimson Tide basketball team will face the Colorado Buffaloes tonight in New York City's Madison Square Garden in the NIT Final Four. Tip-off will be 20 minutes after the first semifinal game concludes, probably near 8:20 CST, with the game being televised nationally on ESPN2.
The stakes in this game are pretty clear: the winner advances to Thursday night's NIT final, while the loser sees their season come to an end. The NIT title would certainly be a nice consolation prize for the winner, but neither Alabama nor Colorado wanted to be in this position at all. While both teams had legitimate "resume flaws" on paper that lead to their exclusion from the NCAA Tournament, there is no doubt in most people's minds that both teams entered the postseason playing better basketball than a large portion of the actual NCAA Tournament field.
Like Alabama, as one of the top teams left out of the NCAA Tournament, the Buffaloes were awarded a #1seed in the NIT and were able to host all three of their NIT games up to this point. They defeated SWAC champions Texas Southern in the opening round, followed by Cal in the second round, and MAC champions Kent State in the third round, all without too much in the way of drama.
Also like Alabama, Colorado had a good conference record of 10-9 with a series of good wins, including five wins over NCAA Tournament teams (Missouri, Texas and Kansas State three times). However, they lacked any good non-conference wins, aside from beating NIT-bound Colorado State at home.
Whatever their resume flaws may have been, though, there is no doubting the way the Buffaloes have been playing as of late. They have now won 9 of their last 12 games, with two of the three losses in that span coming at the hands of #2 ranked Kansas. Alabama fans should need no lesson in distinguishing between teams that were good enough to be in the NCAA Tournament, and teams whose resumes and RPI rankings weren't deemed good enough. Colorado certainly fits that bill, along with Alabama, and many observers (myself included) said right from the start of the NIT that Alabama and Colorado were the two best teams in the tournament.
Full Colorado roster breakdown and game analysis below the jump...
Not only will this game be a battle of two hot teams, but it will be a battle in mirror-opposite styles. Colorado comes into the game with an offense ranked 9th nationally in overall efficiency, while Alabama enters with a defense ranked 7th nationally in overall efficiency. The Buffaloes hit 3-pointers and free throws at among the highest rates in the country, they rarely turn the ball over, and they are able to create good shots around the basket on a consistent basis. Clearly, the vaunted Tide defense has its work cut out for it in this matchup, arguably its biggest test of the entire season. Colorado doesn't shoot all that much from the arc, but when they do they make them at a very high rate, hitting 38% on the season as a team. Instead they rely on getting good shots in and around the paint, which is very surprising considering they play with essentially a 4- or even 5-guard lineup much of the time. The reason for this is that their fast-paced offense is excellent at moving the ball quickly and attacking the basket off the dribble.
Meanwhile, it is Colorado's defense that is their Achilles heel, while as we all know, Alabama's offense has struggled to produce for much of the season. The Buffaloes defense ranks dead last in the Big XII conference, and 178th nationally, in overall efficiency, while the Tide's offense ranks 9th in the SEC, and 106th nationally, in overall efficiency. Colorado's defense isn't particularly good at any one thing, as they have struggled to limit opponents both inside and outside the arc. Their smaller lineup also struggles to block shots, and they don't create a lot of turnovers. As tough a time as Bama is likely to have slowing down the Colorado offense, it is imperative that Alabama's offense consistently keeps the pressure on the Buffalo defense. Particularly, getting the ball inside early and often to JaMychal Green would seem like a smart strategy given their lack of size and weakness in shot blocking.
Individually, the Buffaloes are led by one of the nation's best offensive playmakers in Alec Burks. The 6'6" sophomore wing player is one of only four players in all of college basketball to average over 20 points, 6 rebounds and 2.5 assists this season. He'll likely play in Madison Square Garden again next season as an NBA player, and if his 20.5 point scoring average isn't enough to scare you, consider that he has gotten even hotter later in the season. In fact, he has averaged 26 points per game thus far in the NIT. Burks isn't a big time 3-point shooter, hitting less than one trey per game, although he does possess that range. Rather, he is more of a lanky slasher who can cause mismatches with his quickness and size. He is also considered to be one of the very best players in the nation in drawing fouls, averaging exactly 8 free throw attempts each game. Burks is one of those truly elite scorers that even a good defense like Alabama can't really hope to completely stop. Instead, the Tide should focus on making him take tough shots and avoid fouling him and sending him to the line. Do that, and the Colorado offense will be much easier to slow down.
Colorado's second-leading scorer is 6'5" senior wing player Cory Higgins, who averages 16.1 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. Higgins is actually a very similar player to Burks, just with slightly lower (though still very impressive) numbers. Like Burks, he possesses 3-point range but makes a name for himself beating people off the dribble and getting to the basket. He also is extremely adept at drawing fouls, attempting 5.3 free throws each game. Having both Burks and Higgins on the floor (both play over 30 minutes per game) will make it very difficult for Bama's defense to stop dribble penetration and to stay out of foul trouble when guarding these two slashing wing players.
Although he doesn't typically start, 6'4" senior guard Levi Knutson plays starter's minutes and is the third leading scorer on the team with 11.6 points per game. Knutson is a deadly shooter, knocking down just over two treys each game at an impeccable 48% clip from the arc. Although he is known mostly as an outside shooter, he also shoots very efficiently inside the arc when given the chance. Knutson is so efficient on offense that he averages 1.28 points per shot attempt, putting him among the top 10 players in the nation in that category. The bottom line here is to not let him get shots off, because if he does, you're likely paying for it.
Usually, 6'3" junior point guard Nate Tomlinson would start, but he missed the last game with a shoulder injury and is doubtful for the game tonight. More than likely, Knutson, who leads him in every stat category except assists anyway, will start in his place. 6'1" redshirt freshman guard Shannon Sharpe (apparently no relation to the other Coloradan athlete with the same name) will also likely see extended playing time in his absence.
6'7" senior forward Marcus Relphorde starts at one forward slot, but plays more as a wing player, and is the fourth Buffalo to average double-figures in scoring. He averages 11.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. He has the ability to stretch defenders out with his long shooting range, where he averages just over one made trey each game, but he also has the size to play around the rim. Essentially the versatile 6'7" Relphorde gives the Buffaloes a 4-guard look on the offensive end with yet another perimeter scoring threat to open up space for the Colorado dribble-drive offense.
6'9" junior forward Austin Dufault is the only true post player in the starting lineup, averaging 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. He shares time with 6'7" freshman forward Andre Roberson, who could be a budding star. Roberson also averages 6.8 points per game, but he leads the team with 7.9 rebounds per game despite playing just over half the available minutes.
As a team that was not only good enough to make the NCAA Tournament, but also good enough to win games in it, facing Colorado in the bright lights of Madison Square Garden will be the biggest postseason test imaginable for Alabama outside of the actual NCAA Tournament itself. This team has worked hard and showed a lot of resiliency in bouncing back from the NCAA snub to perform well in the NIT, making a big statement in the process. Colorado has done the same. Tonight we'll find out which NCAA snub can make the biggest statement. Hope for the best.