It’s been a dozen years since the Alabama Crimson Tide last advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but following the Tide’s 86-83 win over the 8th-seeded Virginia Tech Hokies, that’s exactly where the Tide will be. Alabama showed tremendous heart and grit in their win over the explosive Hokies, who shot the lights out despite some pretty solid defense from the Tide. They will need to put that same heart and grit on display Saturday if they hope to knock off the top seeded team in the East region: the Villanova Wildcats (31-4). Head coach Jay Wright has turned the Wildcats into quite the juggernaut over the last few seasons, as ‘Nova finds themselves as a top-2 seed for the fourth year in a row. They also won the national championship two years ago, finally mounting the summit that had alluded them for so long.
Needless to say, this Villanova team is absolutely loaded. As the top rated team in Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency rankings, the Wildcats have shown that they can shoot just about anybody out of the gym. Alabama has played a number of fantastic basketball teams over the course of the season, but Villanova may just be the best opponent yet.
It will take Alabama’s absolute best in order to advance to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.
- POINT 6’3 Jalen Brunson (19.4 PPG, 4.7 APG, 3.1 RPG, 0.9 SPG)
- GUARD 6’3 Phil Booth (10.9 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.8 APG, 0.9 SPG)
- WING 6’7 Mikal Bridges (18.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.6 SPG, 1.1 BPG)
- WING 6’6 Eric Paschall (10.3 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.7 BPG)
- POST 6’9 Omari Spellman (10.7 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 0.8 APG, 1.5 BPG)
Another game, another starting five where all five guys average double-digit scoring per game. Villanova is explosive on offense, and it all begins with consensus national player of the year candidate Jalen Brunson. Brunson is arguably the best point guard in college basketball, capable of lighting teams up (53.1%/41.3%/79.9%) as well as he dishes out assists (26.9% AST%, 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio). His 132.6 offensive rating is among the best in college basketball, and he plays decent defense on the opposing end as well. Booth, who recently returned from an injury that sidelined him for 9 games, is a great complementary piece for the Wildcats. He’s one of the tougher defenders on the team, and his shooting (45.5%/39.4%/77.6%) isn’t too shabby either.
On the wing, Bridges gives Villanova one of the most dynamic swing-men in the game. His unique size and skill-set combination makes him deadly on the offensive end. He can score at any level (52.1%/43.3%/85.1%), pass (11.3% AST%), rebound (9.8% REB%), and defend (98.7 DRtg). His 133.3 offensive rating surpasses even Brunson (Collin Sexton’s is 114.0, by comparison). Paschall is another effective wing who is also scoring at a 53.1% clip, including 32.9% from beyond the arc and 82.7% from the free throw line. At 10.1% REB%, he’s one of the better rebounders on the team. Lastly, the true freshman, Spellman, rounds out the starting group. He’s not a great inside scorer (48.0%), but he can step out and knock down threes (44.2%), which makes him a match-up issue. He leads the team in DRtg (97.8), rebounding (16.6% REB%), and swatting shots (5.4% BLK%).
- GUARD 6’5 Donte DiVincenzo (13.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.2 SPG)
- GUARD 6’3 Collin Gillespie (4.5 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 1.2 APG)
- POST 6’9 Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (3.1 PPG, 2.4 RPG)
If there is one potential weakness on this team, it’s that they aren’t very deep. They only play 8 guys total, and Gillespie and Cosby-Roundtree aren’t exactly game-changers off of the bench. Combined, they only play about 26 MPG. DiVicenzo, however, is a difference maker, He’s a prototypical scoring sixth man (47.0%/38.2%/70.9%) who is also second on the team with a 19.1% AST% and boasts a pretty strong 9.3% REB%. He is every bit as important for this team as any other starter.
Three Keys to Victory
- Keep Attacking. Alabama shot a season best 60.0% from the field on Thursday night. This was possible because of how effectively the Tide attacked the smaller, less physical Hokie defense. Even while Sexton struggled a bit in the first half, Avery Johnson Jr. and Dazon Ingram put the ball on the floor and attacked the rim with authority, which resulted in open space for both Donta Hall and Galin Smith on the back-side of the rim, and even more open space for John Petty, whose 6/8 night from down-town allowed Alabama to keep pace with Virginia Tech’s sharp-shooting before others stepped up for the Tide. Villanova is an absolute behemoth offensively, but their defense can be had. Alabama needs to continue pressing the issue on offense and keep attacking the rim. The Wildcats, much like the Hokies, don’t have much in the way of an interior defense, and with only 8 players in the rotation, getting them in foul trouble could go a long way. The Tide successfully got Tech’s lone big, Kerry Blackshear Jr., in foul trouble early and kept him off of the court, which allowed Alabama to chip away in the paint Thursday night. They need to replicate that game-plan on Saturday.
- Defend the Perimeter. If Alabama doesn’t defend the perimeter like their lives depend on it, Villanova could shoot the Tide out of the gym. Pretty much everyone on the Wildcats’ roster is capable of getting hot and really making their opponents pay. The Tide have superior length and depth, so they can afford to extend the defense out, but they need to make sure they don’t get back-doored while doing so. Donta Hall has been known to chase shots, but he needs to make sure he stays home to prevent the extra pass from turning into easy points in the paint.
- Value Possessions and Limit the Cats’. Alabama played arguably its best game of the season Thursday night against Virginia Tech, yet they still managed to turn the ball over 17 times. That simply won’t cut it against Villanova. Alabama has to take better care of the basketball. Many of the Tide’s turnovers are simply sloppy, dumb, or lazy passing. They can’t afford to give an offense as dynamic as Villanova’s extra possessions. That goes for second chance opportunities as well. There really is no reason why Alabama shouldn’t out-rebound the Wildcats by a decent margin either. If the Tide wants to have any hope, they will likely need to create more possessions than Villanova.
Twelve years in the making have led to this moment. It’s been a season of ups and downs, which, of course, followed a decade of similarly frustrating results. Yet, despite that, Alabama finds itself right where the Tide hoped to be prior to the season starting: in the second round of the tournament going up against some of the best of the best.
We’ve seen Alabama compete with and even beat some of the best in college basketball already. Can the Tide keep the dream alive and advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2004?
The game will tip-off early at 11:10 AM CDT. It will be a quick turn-around for a young team coming off of such a thrilling, yet exhausting win. The game will be televised on CBS.