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2021 NCAA Tournament Preview and How to Watch: #2 Alabama takes on #15 Iona in the First Round

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The Crimson Tide begins its 2021 NCAA Tournament journey against a Hall of Fame coach

NCAA Basketball: Iona at Seton Hall Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Y’all, we made it. After years of mediocrity salvaged only by fleeting moments of success on the hardwood, the SEC Regular Season and Tournament Champion Alabama Crimson Tide (24-6, 16-2 SEC, NET: 7, Kenpom: 8) begins what will hopefully be the first of many NCAA Tournament runs in the next decade-plus under Nate Oats. It’s truly remarkable what the second year head coach has been able to accomplish in such a short period of time, dominating the SEC in only his second attempt through the conference schedule.

Because of that dominance, Alabama was awarded with a #2-seed in the Big Dance, tied for its best seeding ever, along with 1987 and 2002. Much like that 1987 team, considered the best in program history, this year’s squad will end up clashing with the legendary (and, infamous, in many ways) Rick Pitino. Hopefully, things go a bit more according to plan this time, as Wimp Sanderson’s ‘87 squad was stunned by Pitino and Providence in the Sweet Sixteen, falling short of what many expected to be a Final Four run that year.

Granted, Pitino’s current team, the Iona Gaels (12-5, 6-3 MAAC, NET: 138, Kenpom: 181), aren’t exactly Goliath-slaying material. As Pitino put it earlier this week, “Billy Donovan isn’t walking through that door”. Still, Pitino is one of the best to ever do it, and you can bet your bottom-dollar that he’ll have a game-plan perfectly-crafted to try to disrupt Oats’ breakneck offense centered around spacing and high-volume shots. Will the Gaels be able to execute it? That certainly remains to be seen.

The Roster

Starting Five

POINT 5’11 Asante Gist (13.3 PPG, 3.7 APG, 2.1 RPG, 0.7 SPG)

GUARD 6’4 Isaiah Ross (18.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.5 SPG)

WING 6’5 Berrick JeanLouis (8.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.8 APG, 2.3 SPG, 1.1 BPG)

POST 6’8 Dwayne Koroma (2.8 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.2 APG)

POST 6’9 Nelly Junior Joseph (11.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.5 BPG)

The Gaels utilize a pretty traditional look in their starting five, led by the diminutive Asante Gist. The senior point guard is the lone starter who played in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, when Iona lost 88-73 to North Carolina. He is a capable shooter (34.6%/33.3%/88.9%) and strong distributor (25.1% AST%), but his size his definitely a limitation on defense, so expect Jahvon Quinerly to drive quite a bit on him. Isaiah Ross is the Gaels’ go-to scorer (45.5%/39.1%/81.2%). If Iona is to have any shot in this game, Ross is going to have to get hot.

In the front-court, Berrick JeanLouis plays a Herb Jones-like role for the Gaels. By far the best defender on the team (89.9 DRtg), his size/range combination on the defensive end allows him to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. With a 4.2% STL%, he’s great with his hands, and Pitino utilizes him in a number of roles. He’s a decent scorer as well (48.6%/38.6%), but he struggles from the free throw line (56.7%). Koroma and Joseph provide needed size for Pitino in the post. Joseph is a straight-up, traditional five. He bangs on the boards (16.1% REB%) and cleans up around the basket (59.5%/0.0%/63.8%; 6.7% BLK%). Koroma has seen his minutes increase as the season has gone along, and gives the Gaels some flexibility, as he’s able to play out on the wing to stretch the defense. He’s a rare commodity in his ability to both rebound (13.2% REB%) and pass (14.2% AST%). His shooting leaves quite a bit to be desired though (43.8%/17.6%/33.3%).

Off the Bench

GUARD 6’1 Ryan Myers (6.1 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 1.0 APG)

GUARD 6’2 Tahlik Chavez (3.2 PPG, 1.2 APG, 0.8 RPG)

POST 6’9 Dylan Van Eyck (7.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 2.4 APG)

POST 7’1 Osborn Shema (3.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG)

Myers and Van Eyck are the two names to really keep in mind coming off of the bench. Myers is a traditional scoring sixth man - his job is to come into the game and spark the offense by getting buckets (42.0%/45.2%/70.8%). Van Eyck is another big, but with nice all-around skills (43.9%/31.1%/75.0%; 18.4% AST%). Both of these guys will play a big role in this game.

How to Watch

The game will tip-off at 3:00 PM CDT on Saturday and will be televised on TBS. It can also be streamed on the CBS Sports website, along with the rest of the NCAA Tournament.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Turnovers. Iona is one of the worst teams in the country in taking care of the basketball - 311th, to be exact (which is actually not the worst in the field, Oklahoma State, surprisingly, turns the ball over more). They average 15.7 giveaways a game. Obviously, this is a recipe for disaster against the Crimson Tide, who turns its opponents over 15.8 times a game. And when Alabama turns you over, it is off to the races for an easy basket the other way. On the flip-side, the Tide can be a bit loose with the ball at times as well. The Gaels play defense just like any other Rick Pitino-coached team. They will extend the defense out and press on their opponents hands to disrupt the flow of the offense and force turnovers themselves. I fully expect to see Iona play aggressively on the defensive end, so Alabama’s guards need to be able to handle that pressure. High-action screens and baseline cuts will be a great way to counter Iona’s over-extended defense.
  2. Defensive Rebounding. Provided that the Tide can win the turnover battle by as much as the guys are capable of, this game will mostly be about taking care of business as the superior team. That’s really the main perk to earning a top seed in the NCAA Tournament - barring a disaster, this game is more of a formality than a major endeavor. To that point, the Tide just needs to prevent Iona from getting an edge in some obvious areas that have been a struggle for Alabama at times. Preventing offensive rebounds and second-chance points being one of the major ones. The Gaels have pretty good size and depth in the front-court, so board-man Juwan Gary better bring his hard-hat for this one. The Gaels average double-digit offensive rebounds a game, so this is a relative strength-on-weakness match-up for them.
  3. Fouls/Free Throw Rate. The other strength for the Gaels is their ability to get to the charity stripe and knock down the freebies. Iona is 78th in the country in Free Throw Attempts per game and 61st in percentage at 74.3%. Gist and Ross will absolutely be looking to draw contact in this game, so Alabama can’t get too carried away with trying to force turnovers. Also, one of the best ways to beat the Tide is to get SEC Player of the Year, Herb Jones, in foul trouble, which happens more often than Nate Oats would like. If Herb picks up a couple of quick fouls and has to sit, things will get a bit more interesting, especially since Josh Primo won’t be available.

Ultimately, this is a game the Tide should win pretty handily. Alabama is a 17-point favorite for a reason. But it’s also called March Madness for a reason. Iona has a history of getting to the Big Dance (this will be its 15th appearance), and we all know Pitino has a long track record of success during this time of the year.

Either way, no matter how this NCAA Tournament run ends up, the 2021 season has already been a massive success. Can the Tide keep the magic rolling deep into March? It all starts against Iona.

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