Bama Hoops Hype

PREVIEW: Alabama Faces Top-Seeded Wildcats with Spot in the Sweet 16 on the Line

Twitter: @AlabamaMBB

The Alabama men’s basketball team won its first NCAA Tournament game since 2006 but it is not done yet.

Now, the Crimson Tide will be looking to shock the basketball world on Saturday. They will enter PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh as an 11-point underdog against the top-seeded Villanova Wildcats.

“I think that’s a good place for us to be right now and I don’t think anybody’s, at this point, thinking that we’re going to win this game,” Alabama head coach Avery Johnson said on Friday. “But we just got to play ball. Weird things happen in the NCAA Tournament. We’ve already seen it. So, even though we’re an underdog, you know, I have a lot of confidence in our players.”

The Crimson Tide have not won multiple games in the same NCAA Tournament since 2004 when the team went to the Elite Eight. During that run, Alabama also had to go through a top seed but it did not slow that team down.

Villanova is 31-4 this season and will enter Saturday on a six-game winning streak. The Wildcats won the national championship in 2016 but failed to make it to the Sweet 16 last season when they lost to Wisconsin on the tournament’s opening weekend. In fact, Villanova has made it past the first two rounds just one time since 2010.

Alabama has won three of its four postseason games after finishing the regular season on a five-game losing streak. Collin Sexton has grabbed the national headlines but the play of John Petty and other freshmen have brought the Tide back into contention.

Villanova is definitely the favorite in this game and could be the favorite for the entire tournament. But, just like the Wildcats, Alabama is one win away from the Sweet 16. And like Avery Johnson said: Weird things happen in March.

How To Keep Up

Where: PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh, Penn.

When: 11:10 CT

Watch: CBS with Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, Dan Bonner and Dana Jacobson

Listen: Crimson Tide Sports Network with Chris Stewart and Bryan Passink; Westwood One with Scott Graham and Kelly Tripuka

Projected Starting Lineups

9 Alabama (20-15, 8-10 SEC): Collin Sexton (19.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.6 apg), Dazon Ingram (9.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.6 apg), Herbert Jones (4.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.3 spg), Braxton Key (7.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.8 apg), Donta Hall (10.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.1 bpg)

1 Villanova (31-4, 14-4 Big East): Jalen Brunson (19.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.7 apg), Phil Booth (10.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.8 apg), Mikal Bridges (17.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.1 apg), Eric Paschall (10.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.3 apg), Omari Spellman (10.7 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 1.4 bpg)

Key Matchups

Collin Sexton/Herbert Jones vs. Jalen Brunson/Mikal Bridges. All four of these players are all likely going to be drafted into the NBA sometime soon. The difference for the Wildcats is that Brunson and Bridges have been here before. Both of those players are capable of playing with anyone on both sides of the court. It will be interesting to see how these four players are matched up throughout the night.

Sexton and Brunson will be the most talked about matchup for most of the game but the two players may not be guarding each other all that much. On Thursday, Avery Johnson put Jones, the Tide’s best defender, on Virginia Tech’s leading scorer Justin Robinson. Sexton will see some time on Brunson but do not be surprised to see Jones on Villanova’s point guard as long as he stays out of foul trouble. On the other side, Bridges is likely the best defender for the Wildcats. The junior is averaging 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks per game this season. He has the speed and length to guard any position on the court so Bridges may draw the assignment of guarding Sexton.

I expect these four players to be the difference makers on Saturday. An elite all-around performance by any of them could be enough to push his team over the top.

Key Stats

16.5 ppg. This is Villanova’s average margin of victory this season. The Wildcats have 23 wins by more than 10 points this season and have not lost a game by more than eight points. They have the nation’s highest scoring offense (87.1 ppg) and they are just one of seven NCAA teams shooting over 50 percent on the season. Villanova also ranks in the nation’s top 20 in shooting percentages on 3-pointers and on free throws. According to KenPom.com, the Wildcats have the second most efficient offense (AdjO) since that site started recording stats in 2002. This team can score and Villanova makes it near impossible for its opponents to keep up with them.

8 points. Galin Smith has seen a rise in his playing time over the last two weeks and his performances have helped boost the Crimson Tide in the postseason. He has scored 8 points in all three of Alabama’s wins in March. Over the last four games, Smith has averaged 20 minutes per game and is shooting 84.6 percent from the floor. In the three wins, the freshman from Mississippi is averaging four rebounds and has as many blocks as fouls (2). Smith’s production may not look like a lot but it has been a huge improvement and is plenty to be the Tide’s second option in the post. If he can fill the stat sheet against Villanova on Saturday, that probably means good things are happening for Alabama.

Prediction

Alabama looked great on offense on Thursday night and the Tide will probably have to replicate that performance to have a chance against Villanova. Avery Johnson’s team has shown that when it plays its best basketball, it can compete with anyone. With that being said, this Villanova team is special. Another shocking early exit is still possible but it is not something that should be expected. Villanova 81, Alabama 73

Caleb Turrentine is the editor for Bama Hoops Hype. You can follow him on Twitter for in-game updates at @BamaHoopsHype.

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