Bama Basketball Breakdown: Preseason NIT Opening Rounds

Kelly Lambert-USA TODAY Sports

The Tuscaloosa Region begins play

After the big win over Texas Tech last Thursday night, the Crimson Tide has captured some quality momentum, and Alabama hopes to build on that as they host Stillman in the first round of the Preseason NIT. Anthony Grant's squad will also welcome in McNeese State and Georgia State, as the two will play for a spot to play the Alabama-Stillman winner on Tuesday night. The winner of the Tuscaloosa region will move on to the Final Four in New York at Madison Square Garden, where the top seeds from the other regions include #6 Duke, #5 Arizona and Rutgers. The Preseason NIT is one of the premier non conference tournaments in college basketball, and advancing to New York will put Alabama on a big stage. But failing to advance not only eliminates that opportunity, but it would also be an embarrassing loss that would remind Tide fans of some losses from previous seasons (St. Peter's, Tulane, Mercer, Auburn (lol), etc.).

The fact of the matter is that Alabama is hosting these games for a reason. The Crimson Tide are big favorites to advance. With that being said, these next two games will really be about our team continuing to develop and gain some valuable live game reps. There isn't much to say about the competition, as two of them (Stillman and McNeese State), are of the extreme cupcake variety. However, Georgia State is a team that Tide fans shouldn't sleep on. They aren't an incredible team, but they perfectly fit the mold of an ugly non conference loss.

The Opponents

Stillman College

The Tigers are a DII team that play in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Stillman currently sits at 1-2 on the year, with a win over UA-Huntsville and a couple of losses to North Alabama and West Alabama. In other words, this is a team that the RBR Staff Basketball Team could stay within 50 points of. The Tiger's best player is Markeith Madison, who is averaging 19.7 PPG on 46.3% shooting. Madison can shoot from long distance (9/22 on the year) and is also the team's leading rebounder at 7.7 RPG. Stillman has three other players who average double figures in scoring with Jeffery Wherry (12.3 PPG), Justin Harris (13.3 PPG) and Stanley Magee (12.3 PPG), though only Harris scores with any consistency.

McNeese State

We more than likely won't get to play McNeese State, as I expect Georgia State to win this game going away, but the Cowboys are 1-2 this season as well. They were blown out by both #1 Michigan State and Louisiana-Lafayette on the road, but recently got in the win column with a victory over Louisiana College (Yeah, that's a real school). As of this writing McNeese State is in fact getting destroyed by Georgia State, so I'm going to move on.

Georgia State

Let me go ahead and preface the Panthers with a reiteration of the statement I made earlier: this is the "Tulane" you have been dreading. Well, sort of. Georgia State is actually one of the favorites to win the Sun Belt this year, they aren't what you would normally think of when you think of this school. The Panthers are 1-1 this year (about to be 2-1 after they finish off McNeese) with an easy win over Southern Poly and a close, hard fought loss at Vanderbilt. Yes, this team has already almost won on the road against an SEC team, and Vanderbilt is not an easy place to win. The Panthers are currently in the top 40 in the country in PPG, they can fly on offense and in transition. They are led by Sophomore G R.J. Hunter who, coming into the tournament, is averaging 24 PPG on 42.9% shooting and 7 RPG. He is their go-to scorer, and he is pretty good at what he does. Hunter had yet to record an assist until the game aganst McNeese State started, so clearly this guy is looking to score every time he touches the basketball. Hunter is a very good basketball player, and our guys will have our hands full trying to stop him. But here's the kicker, he may not even be the best player on his team. That award goes to Junior G Ryan Harrow, who may sound familiar to y'all. That's right, that's the same Ryan Harrow who played for Kentucky last season, He transferred to Georgia State this offseason and was ruled immediately eligible, so get ready for another dose of the former blue-chip recruit. Harrow is currently averaging 27 PPG, 4 APG, 4 RPG and 2 SPG. He's also shooting nearly 50%, which is pretty darn good. Aside from Hunter and Harrow, who provide a deadly 1-2 punch in the backcourt, Georgia State also wields some other pretty good players. Senior G Devonta White (11 PPG, 5 RPG, and 5 APG) is the veteran of the group, and brings his own offensive prowess to the court (he currently leads the Panthers in scoring vs McNeese State as I type this). Junior F Curtis Washington (13 PPG, 9 RPG 4 BPG) is a very good player in the post in his own right, but he is really the only true big man on this team that plays.

Georgia State is a team that relies on a few very good players to push the ball in transition and make a lot of plays on offense. They can score. A lot. Hunter, Harrow, White and Washington can all play. However, there isn't much depth at all for this team. Coming into the tournament the Panthers had only played 8 guys all season. The other 4 guys that have played haven't been much of a factor at all. So this is your typical small school that landed a couple of really good players, and let's them make plays. Typically a well-coached team that has equal to better talent will still win this game easily. However, in basketball, typically doesn't always apply. Despite Georgia State's ability to score ALL TEH POINTS at times, Alabama would win this game 8 out of 10 times more than likely. But as recent Tide squads have shown, the 2 out of 10 has reared it's ugly head far too often under Grant. This is the biggest key, Alabama CAN NOT over look this team.

What To Watch For

1. Harrow vs Releford. Both of these guys are looking to play point guard in the NBA, so if you can make it to Tuscaloosa over the next two days, enjoy watching both of these guys play. Whether they end up squaring off in the Regional Championship or not, and they should, definitely keep an eye on these two as they continue to develop their games.

2. Up-Tempo and MOAR POINTS. All of our opponents in this region prefer to play as fast as they can and try to score as many points in a minute as they can. They don't really care for your advanced statistics or any nonsense like that. This is what you see in a lot of smaller schools who need an edge to compete with the bigger schools, it's similar in a way to how smaller football schools all seem to run spread offenses now. Alabama can run with these teams if the Tide wants to do that, but typically playing to your opponent's strengths isn't the best idea. Let's see if Grant tries to take the air out of it.

Three Keys to Victory

1. Stay Motivated (Stillman). The problem with playing a team like Stillman is that, like West Georgia, it's hard for the heavy favorites to keep motivated during the game. Hopefully this won't be an issue, and Alabama takes care of business in game one. A lack of motivation is the only way Alabama let's Stillman hang around enough to win this game.

2. Stay Focused (Georgia State). This team is going to present Alabama with a number of problems. The Tide needs to make sure not to make any mental errors that will help the Panthers out in any way. Alabama needs to get an early lead in this game and keep a cap on Georgia State's ability to make plays in transition and in hustle situations. You can not lose focus against a team that can field a couple of playmakers like Harrow and Hunter.

3. Keep Developing. Obviously Alabama's main concern is to find a way to win these two games and move on to New York. But things will get really serious, really quickly. The #6 Duke Blue Devils will be waiting for Alabama should the Tide advance to the Semifinals, so Alabama needs to use these games as a way to keep developing as a team. The new guys need to get more live action, and the returners need more live game reps with the new guys. There are a number of areas that need improvement, and I'm sure Coach Grant will not lose sight of that as he finds a way to lead Alabama to a couple of victories.

Alabama tips off against Stillman tonight at 7:00pm CST, and the game will be broadcast online on ESPN3. Or you can listen on the radio, your call. A win against Stillman will mean the Crimson Tide will play at 7:00pm CST again tomorrow, with the same broadcast conditions.

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