Well, here we are. The top-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide open up the 2019 NIT at home, as they play host the Norfolk State Spartans (21-13, 14-2 MEAC). Avery Johnson is still looking for his first career victory in the NIT, despite having already appeared in the consolation tournament twice before in his short four year tenure in Tuscaloosa.
The opponent will be much more favorable than the previous two outings in the lesser of the two major postseason collegiate tournaments, as the Spartans were granted an automatic bid into the field by winning one of the least difficult conferences in DI basketball, the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference. They were upset in the championship game of the MEAC, falling to North Carolina-Central in an ugly 50-47 loss.
Despite that clunker of a score against the now-tournament-bound Eagles, who will be playing in the First Four at the same time as the Tide and Spartans will be going at it in Tuscaloosa, Norfolk State is not known as a defensive team that struggles to score. Quite the opposite, in fact, as they averaged 77.3 PPG in conference play this year. The Spartans are an up-tempo team like to fill it up from deep (36.9% 3P%, 59th in the country) and get to the free throw line as often as possible (22nd in the country in free throw attempts).
So, if Alabama is lazy on defense, the Spartans have a shot. With that being said, this is easily one of the worst teams the Tide have played this season. South Carolina beat these guys by 17 back at the beginning of the year when they were really struggling to find their way.
There’s no excuse for losing to this team in this setting, unless Alabama has totally mailed it in for the year, which is entirely possible.
POINT 6’1 Mastadi Pitt (9.8 PPG, 2.8 APG, 2.3 RPG)
GUARD 6’3 Nic Thomas (14.4 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.7 APG)
GUARD 6’5 Derrik Jamerson Jr. (10.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG)
WING 6’8 Alex Long (8.5 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.8 BPG)
POST 6’6 Jordan Butler (8.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 0.8 APG, 2.0 BPG)
POINT 6’3 Steven Whitley (9.6 PPG, 3.9 APG, 5.1 RPG, 1.4 SPG)
GUARD 6’1 Joe Bryant Jr. (2.3 PPG, 1.4 RPG)
GUARD 6’4 Kyonze Chavis (3.7 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.1 APG)
WING 6’5 C.J. Kelly (4.6 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 0.8 SPG)
POST 6’7 Armani Branch (4.4 PPG, 2.5 RPG)
Norfolk State plays way more guys than most small conference schools, as ten players have logged appearances in 30+ games this season and average at least 8.5 MPG. That will likely not be the case against the Tide Wednesday night though, as most small conference coaches like to tighten their rotations against power conference schools like Alabama.
The biggest thing that stands out about the Spartans is their severe lack of height. Long is a natural wing, but is listed as the tallest player on the roster at 6’8, and thus, ends up playing in close to the basket more than he would like to as a 33.3% three point shooter and 48.8% overall scorer. He and Thomas are definitely the two to keep an eye on defensively. Thomas is a 39.8% three point shooter, but he’s the definition of a shooting guard, as he simply doesn’t do much outside of jacking up his 6.3 3PAs per game.
Butler is undersized at just 6’6, but he’s 245 pounds and has a high motor, which makes him a force on the interior defensively, as evidenced by his 92.6 DRtg and 9.4% BLK%. If Alabama is weak on their drives to the rim, Butler will protect the basket well.
Overall, this is a game Alabama should be able to just show up and win. The disparity in talent, athleticism, and size makes it seem incredibly unlikely that the Spartans will leave Tuscaloosa with a victory tonight. However, if the Tide come out completely unmotivated, which is very possible considering how the regular season ended, Norfolk could hand Avery Johnson and Alabama a horrid loss to end the year.
As long as the Tide defend the three-point line, attack the glass, and force the Spartans into some turnovers (Norfolk is 314th in the country in turnovers, which is even worse than the Crimson Tide), this should be a cake-walk for Alabama before the real competition rolls into town for the second round.
The game will tip-off at 6:00 PM CDT and will be televised on ESPNU.
As an aside, check out our NIT Preview for information on the experimental rules in place for the 2019 NIT