A.P. Steadham

Alabama was in conversation for NCAA Tournament until two late losses

Alabama basketball headed to Omaha to meet Creighton in NIT first round

What might have been. “I’m sure if we’d won a couple of more games, we’d be sitting here talking about something else,” Alabama Basketball Coach Avery Johnson said in the midst of discussing Alabama’s first round National Invitation game. “We gave ourselves a great shot to make the NCAA Tournament, but had a couple of unfortunate losses at the end.”


Alabama was in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament until late in the season when the Crimson Tide lost home games against Mississippi State and Arkansas and fell into the NIT. Bama didn’t get a bargain, either. After practice Monday, the Tide loaded up for the airplane trip to Omaha, Neb., where it will face Creighton in the first round of the NIT Tuesday. Both teams finished 18-14.


Not making the NCAA Tournament doesn’t mean that Alabama is not pleased to be in the NIT. After all, the Tide had been picked to finish next-to-last in the Southeastern Conference this year, and no one would have expected Bama to have wins over the likes of Texas A&M, Notre Dame and Wichita State on a neutral floor, and Florida and LSU on the road. Bama played Oregon, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, to a 68-72 decision in Birmingham.


As for playing Creighton in Omaha, Johnson said, “We we are confident and focused and want to prove something, we’re prettuy good. Our resume is we won some pretty good games on the road.


“Obviously, we are capable.”


He said his team should be ready and it needs to be mentally ready. “I need to know if their minds are on spring break or on basketball.” This is The University’s spring break week.


The Tide seems to be in a competitive spirit, according to Johnson’s account of Monday’s practice. “We almost had our first fight,” he said. He said that it didn’t upset him because he has been around good teams that would have three or four fights a year. “It’s a physical game,” he said. “You see it in football all the time.”


He was not interested in sharing the names of the would-be pugilists.


No coach in the SEC did more with what seemed to be less than did Johnson.


Alabama got word late Sunday that the Tide would be playing as a fifth seed against No. 4 seed Creighton at 8 p.m. CDT Tuesday (ESPN will televise the game). That meant a hurry-up job to get videotape of the Blue Jays and then put together a game plan.


“It was a late night and an early morning,” Johnson said of the preparation.


The Tide coach said the Blue Jays “have an outstanding point guard in Maurice Watson. They have six guys who can shoot the three. And they have a couple of bruisers inside. Their two leading scorers (Watson at 14.2 points per game and forward Cole Huff at 11.5) are as good as any we have seen.”


What Johnson wants to see, though, is his team playing good offense. “We put together a good game against Ole Miss (an 81-73 win in the SEC Tournament), and then the next game we were unrecognizable (85-59 loss to eventual SEC champion Kentucky).”


Johnson said that both Alabama and Creighton were close to making it to the NCAA Tournament.


Johnson said the NIT opportunity is a good thing: for his seniors, Retin Obasohan and Arthur Edwards, to continue playing; for younger players to get more minutes; to get more film for off-season study; and for the staff, which is also “in its first rodeo” insofar as post-season play is concerned.


Johnson said that he expected to go with the same lineup that has been starting. Bama is led by All-SEC point guard Retin Obasohan, who is averaging 26.8 ppg over his last five contests and 17.7 ppg for the season. The wings are Arthur Edwards (9.7 ppg) and Riley Norris (7.6 ppg and 5.4 rebounds), high post Michael Kessens (3.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg), and low post Jimmie Taylor (5.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.8 blocks).


Off the bench, forward Shannon Hale is averaging 10.8 ppg, guard Justin Coleman 7.5 ppg, guard Brandon Austin 1.6 ppg, and center Donta Hall 2.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks.


This is Alabama’s 14th NIT apearance, but the first since 2007. Bama has won 7 of its last 10 NIT games and has an overall record of 24-16 in the tournament. The Tide has never won the event, but has reached the semifinals in Madison Square Garden in New York six times.


The winners of the four eight-team brackets advance to New York for the semifinals March 29. The championship game is March 31.

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