Alabama learns tournament fate

JaMychal Green and Alabama open play in the NCAA tournament Friday against Creighton. John Reed/US Presswire

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- This time a year ago, the University of Alabama was left on the outside looking in, snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee and jettisoned to the NIT while teams with similar postseason resumes went dancing.

In 2012, the Crimson Tide were determined to not let history repeat itself, bulking up their non-conference schedule and strengthening their RPI.

Despite finishing with the same overall record last year following the SEC Tournament, Alabama on Sunday had its ticket punched for the NCAA tournament as a No. 9 seed. UA will face No. 8 Creighton on Friday in the second round of the Midwest region in Greensboro, N.C.

"I didn't know where we would end up but I felt pretty good about our chances to get in, in light of what we accomplished over the course of the season," UA coach Anthony Grant said after he learned of the seeding. "I think once our name popped up, from what I could tell, there was a sense of joy from our guys."

Alabama finished 2011-12 ranked fifth in the SEC. UA went 9-7 in conference and 21-11 overall.

The Crimson Tide went 12-4 in non-conference play, a much better showing than in 2010-11 when they finished 9-7 in non-conference action prior to the NIT.

UA made a concerted effort to schedule better non-conference games after being snubbed from the NCAA tournament last year. UA played a handful of nationally prominent programs, including Maryland, Purdue, VCU, Georgetown and Oklahoma State. Given the improved schedule, Alabama’s RPI jumped from No. 80 last year to No. 36 in 2011-12. UA’s strength of schedule also went from No. 144 to No. 32.

Alabama veterans JaMychal Green and Andrew Steele addressed the media along with their coach on Sunday night, all smiles from the news of the tournament berth.

"The longer we waited, the more nervous we got with flashbacks of last year," Steele said. "When we finally heard our name called it was just a lot of excitement, understanding that all of our hard work had paid off. ... It was one of those indescribable feelings you can't put words on."

Green, who was one of four players suspended during the regular season, said the tournament selection was made all the more sweet considering all the team has been through.

"We had a lot of obstacles we had to pass," Green said. "It's been a long, tough season for us but we hung in there and stayed together as a team and kept fighting.

"The last month has been a big transition. Like I said, our freshmen stepped up. They're not freshmen to me anymore, they're veterans. They gained confidence in their game and got a feeling for what it will feel like to face top teams."

The Creighton Bluejays finished the season 28-5 overall and 14-4 in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Bluejays are led by All-American forward Doug McDermott, who averages 23.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. He also shoots 49 percent from 3-point range.

Like Alabama, Creighton played Wichita State -- another tournament team -- in the regular season. While Alabama was able to come away with a 10-point win in mid-November, Creighton didn't have as much success, falling at home to Wichita State by more than 20 points in their first matchup. The second time Creighton played Wichita State, the Bluejays won by seven points on the road.

At first glance, the Creighton pairing is an interesting one for Alabama. The Bluejays are a team of shooters, boasting a 50.9 percent field goal percentage and better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. Creighton has taken nearly 200 more 3-point shots than Alabama.

Creighton averages 80 points per game but surrenders 69.5 per game on defense. By contrast, Alabama averages 64.9 points per game and gives up an average of just 58.1.

If Alabama does move past Creighton, UA will likely face North Carolina, one of four No. 1 seeds in the tournament. Green said the team is aware of the challenge ahead and is trying to focus on Creighton.

"Our minds tend to wander there," Green said of the prospect of facing North Carolina. "But you have to stay focused. You have to take it one game at a time. You can't overlook a team because any team can beat any team in the tournament. All the teams are good. We're just focusing on Creighton right now."