By Chris DePew
March 17, 2018
Alabama’s short spring revival ended with a sharp thud Saturday, as top-seeded Villanova put together a flawless run to open the second half and leave the No. 9 Crimson Tide in the dust with an 81-58 blowout in the second round of the NCAA Tournament East Regional in Pittsburgh.
What did we learn today?: Championship teams have a higher gear that Alabama can’t touch at this stage of development. There’s a reason the Wildcats are favored to win their second national title in three years. A solid mix of highly talented players keep their egos in check and stay around campus long enough to learn how to lead a team and execute a polished offense while remaining tenacious on the other end of the court. Take junior point guard Jalen Brunson. He might not have the top end raw talent of a Collin Sexton, but he knows how to play within himself and make sure he isn’t hurting his team with mistakes. He had five fewer points than Sexton but also five fewer turnovers. Part of that is his mental makeup, much of it is experience at the highest level of college basketball and the rest is having teammates he know can carry the scoring load if it isn’t his night. Alabama could get to that level someday, but it will take more than one strong recruiting class to do it and more than one season’s worth of games. Having finally regained a toehold in the realm of relevant teams, Bama is going to have to rededicate itself to working even harder to not only solidify its position but compete for conference championships and trips deeper into March Madness.
What were the biggest concerns?: Villanova’s 18-1 scoring barrage to open the second half was less of a concern and more of a white flag. Bama hung in the game throughout the first half with a mixture of solid defense, Wildcats foul trouble and timely baskets in the paint, but even then there was an uneasy feeling that the Tide wasn’t taking full advantage of the opening. Once the Wildcats came out refocused, Alabama panicked. And when Alabama panics, its offense goes into shutdown mode, as players seem to grow root systems attaching them to the floor and passing lanes dry up like raisins. Every fruitless possession sapped a little more morale and made it that much easier for Villanova to find cracks in the defense.
What was the best part of the game?: Given just a shade over 36 hours to produce a gameplan to stop the nation’s most efficient offense, Avery Johnson came up with a gem. The Tide used its length to scare Villanova out of the lane, with the Wildcats shooting just seven 2-point field goals in the first half (and making two). Bama would have almost certainly led at the break if it weren’t for Nova sixth man Donte DiVincenzo going 5-for-9 from 3-point range. Villanova made only a third of its baskets in the first half and just under 40 percent for the game.
Who was the star?: Sexton’s season – and most likely college career – came to a sudden end after 30 minutes when he picked up a technical foul after making his seventh basket to finish with 17 points, snapping a string of five consecutive games with 21 or more. But even though the team never completely gelled around him the way everyone hoped in the preseason, Sexton will absolutely be missed, notwithstanding the half-baked bleating of at least one columnist in the state. Come June, expect him to be the first Alabama player in a decade to be taken in the NBA draft, the first to go in the first round since Gerald Wallace in 2001 and quite possibly the first Crimson Tide lottery selection since Antonio McDyess in 1995.
What’s next?: A three-man recruiting class highlighted by four-star point guard Jared Butler joins Texas transfer Tevin Mack on a roster that could realistically return nine scholarship players from this season’s 20-win team. Players have until April 22 to declare for the NBA draft and until June 11 to pull their name back out (assuming they don’t hire an agent). The first available game date for the 2018-19 regular season is Tuesday Nov. 6.
Follow Chris DePew on Twitter @TideFansChris