Another March, another trip to the NIT.
The Alabama Crimson Tide (19-14, 10-8 SEC) will be making their third straight NIT appearance this week, as they host the 6th-seeded Richmond Spiders (20-12, 12-5 Atlantic 10) in the friendly confines of Coleman Coliseum on Tuesday night. The Tide drew a 3-seed in the postseason consolation tournament, the highest seeding ‘Bama has received since grabbing a 1-seed in 2013, and a solid improvement from the 5-seed the Crimson Tide was awarded with last season. Last year’s NIT ended before it even started, as Alabama was sent to Omaha, Nebraska to try to tackle a young, improving Creighton team that blew the doors off of the Tide 72-54. That same Jays squad used last season’s NIT appearance to spring-board their 2017 campaign into a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
If Alabama wants to make similar noise in this season’s NIT, they will need to bring their ‘A’ game from the start, as Richmond is no pushover. The Spiders won 20 games and finished 3rd in a three-bid Atlantic 10 this season. They lack depth but have a pair of experienced play-makers and a strong group of young talent. The Spiders are returning to the NIT for the first time since their quarterfinal run in 2015, when they lost a competitive game against the Miami Hurricanes, a round after the ‘Canes beat Alabama in a fun one in South Beach. Miami parlayed that year’s NIT run into a Sweet Sixteen appearance in the NCAA Tournament a year ago.
The bottom line is this: successful NIT runs with young teams set the stage for a bigger future. The 2017 senior class has a chance to make a deep run in the NIT and be remembered as the group that kicked things off for Alabama’s return to the top of the SEC in hoops. But it won’t be easy.
- PG 5’10 ShawnDre’ Jones (16.8 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.0 SPG)
- 2G 6’2 Khwan Fore (11.0 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.6 SPG)
- 3G 6’4 Nick Sherod (7.7 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 0.8 APG)
- WF 6’4 De’Monte Buckingham (10.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.7 BPG)
- PF 6’8 T.J. Cline (18.0 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 5.7 APG, 1.0 SPG)
The Spiders run a 4-Out, 1-In offense with a group of solid guards and a stud in the post. Jones, the senior point guard, leads the way for Richmond. His 21.8% A% is second on the team only to Cline (yes, the one post player), and he is the most talented scorer among the guards (46.2% FG%, 39.6% 3P%, 82.3% FT%). However, all of the guards are more than capable of scoring. Fore isn’t the best from long range (30.8% 3P%), but he is a 49.5% scorer overall, as he can get to the basket. The two freshmen, Sherod, and Buckingham, are solid shooters (Sherod: 45.0% FG%, 33.0% 3P%, 84.0% FT%; Buckingham: 45.5% FG%, 35.1% 3P%, 73.6% FT%).
In the post it’s all about T.J. Cline. The Atlantic-10 Player of the Year is an all-around stud offensively, capable of dropping a triple-double, as he’s done multiple times this year. A 51.0% scorer, Cline also has the ability to step outside and knock down a three (31.9%). On top of that, Cline is one of the best passers at his position in recent memory. He leads the team with an incredible 38.9% A%. That’s an all-conference kind of number for a point guard. As dangerous of a scorer as he is, ‘Bama can’t just collapse on him in the paint, because he will find one of his capable guards open elsewhere. This is a very efficient offense.
However, despite their abilities to score, the Spiders struggle in other areas. Buckingham is the only above average defender (DRtg: 98.0) and rebounding threat (11.4% RB%) in the back-court, and even Cline doesn’t exactly dominate in these two areas (99.0 DRtg, 14.4% RB%).
- G 6’2 Julius Johnson (5.3 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.7 SPG)
- F 6’8 Marshall Wood (3.7 PPG, 2.0 RPG)
- F 6’8 Kwesi Abakah (0.3 PPG, 1.0 RPG)
There is one other issue that has plagued the Spiders this season: they have no depth. The starting five and Julius Johnson all play 20.0+ MPG, and the only other two regulars in the rotation average 14.2 and 6.6 MPG. Abakah hardly even makes a noteworthy contribution when he checks in for his half-dozen minutes a game. They basically have one back-up guard and one back-up forward. Johnson is almost identical to whichever guard he ends up checking in for too. He’s a decent scorer (43.4% FG%, 33.3% 3P%, 81.3% FT%) and a below average defender, passer, and rebounder.
The NIT is experimenting with a number of significant rule changes this year. They are as follows:
- The game will be officiated like four 10-minute quarters, despite still being played as two 20-minute halves.
- Team fouls reset after each 10-minute “quarter”.
- After a team commits its fifth foul in each 10-minute “quarter”, the other team will shoot two free throws. There will be no one-and-ones.
- The shot clock will be reset to 20 seconds instead of 30 when the ball is in-bounded in the front court.
Obviously, these rule changes will have a major impact on the way these games are played, especially for a team like Alabama who plays a physical brand of defense and is terrible from the free throw line (though the Tide were much better in this area last week). The NCAA wants to find a way to cut down on the outrageous number of free throws that have plagued so many games this year, while stubbornly keeping their incredibly tight officiating that they introduced a few years ago.
Three Keys to Victory
- Dominate the Glass. The biggest mismatch in this game will be Alabama’s superiority on the boards. The Tide rank 31st in the country in rebounding margin per game at +5.5. Richmond comes into the NIT at -4.9 per game, 325th in the NCAA. That’s despite playing A-10 competition, which is less about size and athleticism and more about skill and ability. Alabama should dominate the glass in this game. If they don’t, Richmond will have a good shot at upsetting the Tide.
- Run Them Off the Arc. The area where Richmond can do the most damage in this game is on the perimeter. Jones may be the only consistently good three-point shooter, but nearly everyone in the regular rotation for the Spiders can heat up. Alabama wants to funnel Richmond into the teeth of their elite defense, where the Tide’s massive size advantage can stifle the Spiders offense.
- Heed the New Rules. The experimental rule changes will have a massive impact on this year’s NIT. Alabama needs to get acquainted with them quickly if they want to find success. The resetting of fouls at the 10-minute mark should benefit the Tide, as the opposition is usually in the bonus around that time due to ‘Bama’s physical defense. Also, the elimination of the one-and-one could be big for Alabama in that there will be less empty trips after a miss on the front-end.
Overall, the opening game of the 2017 NIT should be an interesting one for Alabama. With the new rule changes and an opponent who operates with a completely different style than the Tide, this will be a good test to see if Alabama has carried over any momentum from last week’s successful SEC Tournament run.
Many teams in the recent past have used the postseason NIT as a launching pad to bigger and better things the following season. Avery Johnson seems to have Alabama on that trajectory in 2017. Can the Tide capitalize?
The game will tip-off at 8:15 CDT and will be televised on ESPN2.