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NCAA Tournament Game Breakdown: Alabama v. Creighton

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Antoine Young and the Creighton offense will present a huge challenge.
Antoine Young and the Creighton offense will present a huge challenge.

The 2012 NCAA Tournament will begin in full today, meaning we are now just a day away from Alabama's long-awaited return to March Madness. In one of the most anticipated matchups of the opening round, the Crimson Tide will take on the Creighton Blue Jays of the Missouri Valley Conference. Earlier this week we broke down the Blue Jays' roster, and today we will delve deeper into how the two teams match up.

When Alabama has the ball

All the talk among the national media leading up to this game has been about the classic "offense versus defense" matchup featuring Creighton's top-10 offense against Alabama's top-10 defense. It's understandable this matchup is getting all the media hype, but the majority of the game will be played when Alabama's offense goes up against Creighton's defense (Alabama's offensive possessions are sure to last longer on average than Creighton's). Alabama's ability to score consistently against a mediocre Creighton defense will have as big an impact on the outcome of the game, if not bigger, than Alabama's ability to stop the Creighton offense.

Advantages for Creighton

Creighton has one very crucial advantage in this matchup: rebounding. The Blue Jays are not a particularly big team, usually playing with just one post player at a time in their lineup, but they manage to rebound at an extremely high rate on the defensive end. They rank 9th in the nation in defensive rebounding rate, rarely surrendering offensive boards or 2nd-chance points. Alabama has been fairly average as an offensive rebounding team, so this is a clear advantage for the Blue Jays.

Creighton has been very effective at avoiding fouls on the defensive end. They rank 32nd nationally in opponents' free throw attempt rate, meaning they rarely send opposing players to the charity stripe. Seeing as how the Alabama offense has been below average at generating free throw attempts, it is safe to say Alabama could have a difficult time getting to the line against the Blue Jays.

Advantages for Alabama

Only two teams out of 345 in Division I basketball force fewer turnovers per possession than the Creighton defense. With Alabama's scoring opportunities from 2nd-chance points and free throws likely to be limited due to the advantages for Creighton described above, it is critical for the Tide to capitalize on this advantage and increase its scoring chances by keeping turnovers very, very low.

Alabama should have an advantage in the paint on this end of the floor. The Tide offense is at its best when the ball is near the rim, and ranks 41st nationally in shooting inside the arc. The Creighton defense meanwhile is merely average at best when defending on the interior. They rank at the very bottom nationally in defensive block rate, so resistance around the rim shouldn't be especially strong.

Keys for the Tide

- Get the ball to JaMychal Green. Do the Jays have anyone who can match up on him defensively? Primary big man Echenique is big and strong but not the quickest guy ever. If Creighton goes man, as they prefer to do, Green will likely have an advantage over anyone who matches up with him. If the Jays double him on each touch, his ability to pass out of traps will be a major key to Bama's scoring chances. If Creighton goes zone, Green needs to find seams in the zone and demand the ball; doing so will help collapse the zone. Most importantly, Green needs to stay on the floor. This will be the most important game of his four-year career. He needs to be on the floor for it. In fact, the single biggest determining factor in this game could well be whether or not Green picks up dumb fouls. Every Bama fan should be saying their prayers tonight that he doesn't.

- Guards need to attack the defense. This has been a key in pretty much every game, but given that Alabama will rarely be getting 2nd-chance points, it is essential for the Tide to not settle for jump shots. The biggest key in this regard, as always, will be Trevor Releford. He needs to have a great game. Alabama can't outscore Creighton with JaMychal Green alone, and so Releford needs to score well into double-digits to allow Bama to keep pace. Releford will likely be spied by the quick Antoine Young for Creighton, but other Tide guards will likely be paired with bigger but slower defenders. Players like Steele, Lacey, Cooper, and Randolph need to be aggressive at attacking these players.

When Creighton has the ball

While not any more important than the matchup of Alabama's offense versus Creighton's defense, this matchup will be played at a much higher level. In fact, it could be argued that you won't see a more high-level offense versus defense matchup until at least the Sweet Sixteen, if not the Final Four. With Crieghton's offense ranked 5th in the nation in overall efficiency and Alabama's defense ranked 9th in overall efficiency, this will be a battle of strengths. Many believe that Creighton will be the team to force the issue on this end, but Alabama's defensive strategy may dictate things more than anything else.

Advantages for Creighton

As pretty much everyone has heard by now, Creighton is 3rd in the nation in 3-point shooting. They hit a mind-numbing 43% from beyond the arc, meaning that if they get looks, they are going to hit them. Now, Alabama's defense is actually 4th in the nation in opponents' 3-point shooting percentage, so some might say this isn't really a Creighton advantage. However, when a team is that lethal from beyond the arc, they will find a way to make a defense pay no matter how effective they may be. Creighton's 3-point shooting will hurt Alabama. The question is, how much?

Not only is Creighton effective at scoring from beyond the arc, but they are also effective at scoring from the stripe. They led the MVC in free throw attempt rate, meaning they were very adept at drawing fouls. Alabama meanwhile was 9th in the SEC is opponents' free throw rate. Alabama must try to defend without fouling, because as deadly as the Creighton offense is, Bama just can't afford a big negative free throw disparity on top of everything else.

One other big advantage the Blue Jays will enjoy: Doug McDermott. Alabama simply hasn't played a better pure scorer all season long. Like with Creighton's team shooting from the perimeter, Alabama can't expect to shut him down. Alabama can merely hope to limit the damage he does on the offensive end.

Advantages for Alabama

The one weakness of Creighton's offense is their penchant for giving up steals and turnovers. They ranked at the bottom of the MVC in both categories. Alabama meanwhile led the SEC in defensive steal rate and ranked 3rd in defensive turnover rate. As efficient as Creighton's offense has been, Alabama's best chance to slow them down (not to mention to generate some easy offense) is to force turnovers, something Alabama's tenacious defense is usually able to do.

An advantage that Alabama has in this matchup that few are talking about is the ability to dictate tempo. All of the talk is centering around the fact that Creighton likes to play faster, with quick possessions resulting in a larger number of possessions for both teams as the game wears on, while Alabama likes to play slower. In aggregate, this is true. But while Alabama's defense typically excels at slowing things down, Alabama also has the ability to speed things up at times by employing full-court and half-court traps. Anthony Grant's ability to press and trap at key times to in an attempt to speed up the game and force turnovers, while also having the ability to slow down the tempo with soft full-court and half-court man defense could allow Alabama to keep Creighton's offense more off-balanced and turnover-prone than any other defense they have faced this season.

Keys for the Tide

- Force turnovers. Alabama will almost certainly not be able to win without winning the turnover battle. Not only does the Tide need to limit Creighton's chances, but Bama also needs to score in transition to try and keep pace with Creighton's scoring.

- Contain Young and Gibbs. As we mentioned in our previous piece breaking down Creighton's players, Young and Gibbs are the engines of the Blue Jay offense. They don't get the headlines that McDermott does, but they generate just as much scoring with their playmaking ability. It is really these two players that manage to set up shooters and spark the Creighton offense. Alabama's team defense simply can't let them penetrate at will, or they will carve up Alabama and free up the deadly Creighton shooters.

Final Thoughts

This is the biggest Alabama basketball game since Ronald Steele's potential game-winning 3-pointer bounced off the rim against eventual finalists UCLA in 2006. Alabama's players need to come out with the kind of focus and energy that the moment calls for.

A high-powered offense like Creighton's is bound to get hot at some points during the game. In fact, I'm willing to bet there will come a point in the game where the Blue Jays hit three 3-pointers in a row. How Alabama responds to these outbursts on both ends of the court will be crucial. In fact, Alabama could easily find themselves quickly in a big hole after such an outburst, or could see a big lead evaporate almost instantly. When that happens, the Tide must respond.

Just because it bears repeating: JaMychal Green must avoid foul trouble for Alabama to have a good shot at winning this game.

As with every single college basketball contest between two evenly matched teams, shooting could very well make or break this game. If Creighton has a great day shooting, say where they shoot over 50%, Alabama can pretty much go ahead and pack its bags. Meanwhile, if Alabama could somehow find about 4-5 treys during the course of the game, suddenly Bama's task becomes much more manageable, even if the Tide has trouble slowing down Creighton. The point is, with all this talk of strategy and matchups, it could just come down to which team has a good day putting its open shots in the hoop. Such is March Madness.

This will be one of the biggest coaching challenges of Anthony Grant's career. With two evenly-matched but stylistically opposite teams clashing in an NCAA Tournament game, coaching decisions will play an even bigger role than normal. Which coach can dictate a favorable tempo on the court will likely come out on top. Speaking of coaching decisions, will Creighton coach Gregg McDermott employ a man defense, zone defense, or both? My guess: he'll mix it up.

Millions of Americans will be tuned in watching the NCAA Tournament live on Friday afternoon in one of the biggest television events of the year. Alabama's basketball program has a huge chance to make a statement with all eyes on March Madness.

Here's to the Tide making the most of that chance. Hope for the best.

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