PITTSBURGH – When Jay Wright saw something in Alabama athletics he felt he could use as a “teaching moment” for his Villanova basketball team, it’s might not be a surprise he found it with the Crimson Tide’s football team.
It certainly wouldn’t surprise the Alabama basketball players who will match up against the Wildcats on Saturday in the second round of the NCAA tournament. They are fully aware their school is dominated by football, even as they try to make inroads on that reputation.
“The culture’s changing,” sophomore forward Braxton Key said. “They are starting to become more basketball fans, so it’s great.”
But it was during college football’s national championship game that Wright found the perfect Villanova-type lesson when Alabama benched its quarterback at halftime and came back behind a freshman reserve to win the title against Georgia.
“You can tell if a guy is faking it or if he really gets the fact that he’s part of something bigger than himself,” Wright said of Jalen Hurts, the starter who was taken out of the game. “And when a guy that talented and has had that much success – been a championship quarterback – can genuinely root for his backup to win the game, then that’s a real program.”
So, we know that Alabama football is a real program. There’s a shock. And we know that Villanova basketball, which plays the way it preaches, is a real program. The question that will be addressed Saturday, almost regardless of the outcome, is whether coach Avery Johnson has transformed the Crimson Tide into a real basketball program, too.
In just his third season, Johnson has gotten Alabama an NCAA tournament win for the first time since 2006, but it took a massive upset of Auburn in the Southeastern Conference tournament to simply make the field. Alabama finished its season with a five-game losing streak and an 8-10 conference record and is one of only three at-large teams that failed to win 20 games prior to selection.
The Crimson Tide is tall and athletic and ridiculously young. Johnson has five freshmen in his regular rotation, and while Alabama is very talented, the team has a tendency to skitter on the edge of being out of control. Turnovers can be a problem. Taking ill-considered shots can be a problem. Standing around on offense waiting for freshman guard Collin Sexton, who will be an NBA lottery pick, to take over can be a problem.
Add them up and it is a lot of problems of the sort that Villanova usually preys upon. Still, Alabama survived a tough opening-round game with Virginia Tech, emerging with the 86-83 win despite turning the ball over 17 times and allowing Tech to shoot 55.6 percent from the field.
“Very aggressive defensively and very active. They make it very difficult for you to execute offense smoothly,” Wright said of Alabama. “Great length, just a really interesting team. I don’t know if we’ve faced a team like them this year. It’s a really difficult matchup.”
Johnson agrees that height is a primary weapon for the Crimson Tide. The two other guards who start alongside the 6-foot-3 Sexton are 6-7 Herbert Jones and 6-5 Dazon Ingram. He also starts a 6-8 swingman in Key and brings 6-5 sharpshooter John Petty off the bench for an inside-out component to Sexton’s ability to drive the lane. The big man at the rim is 6-9 Donta Hall, who will be mobile enough to drift out and contest perimeter threats from Villanova forwards Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall.
“We present problems to the other teams, you know?” Johnson said. “But we’ve got to play some really outstanding defense combined with being balanced on offense. When you’re playing against … this championship caliber of a team that knows what they are doing and they’ve been here before. They’ve won it.”
Alabama has won it all before, too, but just not in this sport. In basketball, the Tide has gotten past the round of 32 just once in the past 27 years, and that was a trip to the Elite 8 in 2004 that, coincidentally, required upsetting a No. 1 seed (Stanford) in the second round.
“I don’t think anybody’s thinking that we’re going to win this game,” Johnson said. “But we’ve just got to play ball. Weird things happen in the NCAA tournament. We’ve already seen it. Even though we’re an underdog, I have a lot of confidence in our players.”
Maybe someday coaches around the country can find their teaching moments from Avery Johnson as well as Nick Saban. The Alabama basketball program isn’t quite there yet, though, but things could be changing in Tuscaloosa. Villanova’s job on Saturday is to make sure they don’t change more quickly than expected.