The Madness of March is fully underway - after a thrilling opening day yesterday, the 6th-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide (19-13, 9-9 SEC; NET: 30; Kenpom: 25) take the floor this afternoon, looking to start another run in the Big Dance. The regular season certainly didn’t end the way anyone had hoped, but if there is anything to take away from yesterday’s action it’s this - March doesn’t care what came before it. Elite, top-5 blue blood program with the unanimous National Player of the Year? Here’s an overtime loss to Saint Peter’s, who finished second in the MAAC (behind the Iona Gaels, I might add) this season. Red-hot Big Ten Tournament champs? Take this ‘L’ from the sixth-place Atlantic-10 Richmond Spiders.
It’s what makes the NCAA Tournament such an incredible event (and also a terrible way of determining who the best teams are). The first four months of the season are about conference titles and earning your spot in the field of 68. Now, we are in a whole other season entirely.
Which brings us back to today, where Nate Oats and the fellas will take on the 11th-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish (22-10, 15-5 ACC; NET: 53; Kenpom: 52) in sunny San Diego for the right to play again on Sunday. Mike Brey’s 13th NCAA Tournament squad is fresh off of an epic, double overtime win in the First Four in Dayton on Wednesday night, where the Fighting Irish defeated Rutgers in an instant classic right as the clock turned midnight on Saint Patrick’s Day. It was quite the scene.
Now, less than 48 hours later, Notre Dame will take the court against the Tide on the West Coast. Will the Irish be riding some momentum from their win in Dayton, or will the weariness of the past couple of days weigh on them? Either way, it’s time to see Alabama return to its peak form.
POINT 6’3 Prentiss Hubb (9.1 PPG, 4.1 APG, 3.1 RPG, 105.4 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Blake Wesley (14.4 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.4 APG, 101.8 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Cormac Ryan (8.6 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.9 APG, 101.4 DRtg)
GUARD 6’6 Dane Goodwin (13.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.3 APG, 104.3 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Paul Atkinson (12.8 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.6 APG, 100.6 DRtg)
It’s taken Mike Brey five years to get back to this spot, but it’s certainly not one he is unfamiliar with. His team may not be used to playing in the spotlight of March, but they’ve got more than enough overall basketball experience to make up for it - the Irish start four seniors. However, it’s the freshman phenom, Blake Wesley, who makes the offense go. Wesley has a 31.1% USG% and takes 12.5 shots per game. He’s not the most efficient scorer (40.4%/31.2%/64.4%) but he is the one who initiates the offense most of the time.
Joining him in the back-court is a trio of guards, as the Fighting Irish utilize a 4-Out, 1-In scheme around big man Paul Atkinson. The offense is all about movement and passing, and it’s a set that Alabama utilized heavily last March, though the Tide was still mostly iso-driven, opting to take advantage of the spacing the look creates. Prentiss Hubb is the primary distributor (21.8% AST%), as he brings the ball up the court, but the Irish share the ball well as a team (54.9% assist-field goal ratio). Cormac Ryan is an efficient scorer (43.8%/38.4%/82.5%), though he often defers to other options.
Dane Goodwin plays the pivotal role of the ‘big guard’ four-position. He’s an elite shooter (50.3%/45.6%/84.5%), but he also uses his (relatively) big frame to attack the glass and grab rebounds. Atkinson is - as mentioned - the big that makes everything work. He’s a traditional big, so all of his scoring is done around the basket (59.3% FG%). He’s also the lone rim protector (2.5% BLK%) and good rebounder (15.2% REB%) in the starting unit.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’5 Trey Wertz (4.1 PPG, 2.1 APG, 1.8 RPG, 105.4 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Nate Laszewski (9.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 99.6 DRtg)
Watching Notre Dame’s match-up with Rutgers the other night, I noted that the Irish had shortened their rotation to just seven guys. Well, turns out they hadn’t shortened it at all. Trey Wertz and Nate Laszewski are the whole bench. Not literally, of course, but the guy with the 8th most playing time on the team is J.R. Konieczny, who has played 22 minutes all season. Wertz is identical to the other four guards (38.8%/38.7%/81.0%; 18.9% AST%) , and Laszewski is an extension of Atkinson, though he can stretch the floor with his shooting (52.0%/46.2%/84.4%; 13.7% REB%).
Three Keys to Advancing
- Dictate the Tempo. I mentioned the other night that Notre Dame is like Villanova-lite. They take care of the basketball, can really shoot it, disregard offensive rebounding so they can get back on defense, and really slow the pace of the game to a crawl (256th in the country in tempo). Alabama, of course, is the absolute inverse of that. So, this is going to be a clash of styles today. Obviously, it would behoove the Tide to play the game at their speed, but that bears extra weight in this one considering a) Notre Dame’s short bench and b) the Irish’s extremely busy previous ~40 hours.
- Value Possessions. Inevitably, Notre Dame is going to have - at the least - some success slowing the game down. When they do, Alabama has to make the most of their half-court game. The turnovers have gotten out of hand lately, and while Notre Dame isn’t great at forcing turnovers (334th in the country), most of the Tide’s turnovers are unforced giveaways. That is a recipe for a short tournament trip.
- Attack the Basket. Notre Dame has one plus-defender (Laszewski) in its rotation and is 195th in the country in opponent’s 2P% as a team. And they just got off a flight from Dayton after a double-overtime battle that ended at midnight on the East coast. Furthermore, they are mostly a bunch of sub-200 pound guards. The three-point shot is tempting, and yes, Alabama should still be taking them if the looks are good, but the Tide needs to attack the basket all day today. Alabama is, after all, 8th in the country in 2P% at 56.3%. Jahvon Quinerly, Jaden Shackelford, J.D. Davison, and Keon Ellis should be blowing past these defenders all afternoon. As an extension to this, the Tide is also 11th in the country in OREB%. Get to the rim and crash the glass hard. Alabama is the bigger, deeper, more athletic team, and they need to play like it today.
It’s been tough at times to enjoy Alabama’s roller coaster ride of a season, but I’m as pumped as ever sitting here typing out this NCAA Tournament game preview. Let’s not take this for granted, and that goes for the fans and the team. It’s time for the Tide to put together a good stretch of basketball and make this tournament run as memorable as the last one. We all know the guys are more than capable of doing so.
DraftKings Sportsbook has Alabama listed as a 4-point favorite - which tells me that they are as unsure of which Tide team shows up as we are. If Alabama can control the tempo of this game and flex its superior size, athleticism, and depth, the Tide could roll big today.
The game is scheduled to tip-off at 3:15 PM CDT, though we know how that can be. TNT (along with Avery Johnson!) will be providing coverage.