With a reprieve in NCAA Tournament action for the next couple of days, the focus of the college basketball world turns to the NIT. In perhaps the marquee match-up of the night, an underrated New Mexico team squares off with an Alabama squad that many felt was robbed of an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament after a strong showing in the SEC this season.
NBA Draft nuts will want to focus their attention on the battle inside between Alabama's JaMychal Green and the Lobos Drew Gordon, both of whom are viable pro prospects with an opportunity to show off their abilities against stiff competition.
For Alabama tonight is an opportunity to further prove they were deserving of an at-large berth in the Field of 68 while New Mexico can score another blow for the Mountain West Conference as BYU and San Diego State have carried the torch well so far in the NCAA Tournament.
Follow along after the jump for a breakdown of tonight's match-up.
New Mexico Lobos, 4-seed
The Lobos are playing some of their best basketball at the right time of year, led by junior forward Drew Gordon who has recorded double-doubles in four of his last five games. New Mexico reached this point by way of an opening round win over a feisty UTEP team, downing the Miners by 12. It was an excellent team performance (16 assists on 22 field goals), with the Lobos controlling the glass and finishing with a +12 advantage.
Rebounding has been a calling card of the Lobos all season, ranking in the top 50 nationally in offensive rebound rate and offensive rebound rate against. With that said, their game is built around spot-up scenarios and scoring efficiently in transition. Only an average perimeter shooting team, New Mexico excels from mid-range and gets nearly 40% of its in the half court set around the rim - but not in post-up entries, meaning this team likes to attack to basket off the dribble.The Lobos do a nice job of sharing the basketball here with Phillip McDonald, Kendall Williams, Dairese Gary, Tony Snell and Jamal Fenton all seeing better than a 10% usage rate in spot-up settings, but it's Williams that has proven to be the most effective. The freshman guard averaged just over 11 points per game this season and ranked in the 94th percentile in spot-up scoring nationally, proving to be a real threat from the outside, shooting over 42% from beyond the arc.
Not surprisingly, Gordon is the top low post scoring option, accounting for nearly 50% of the team's possessions inside. He's been good, not great in this regard, shooting at a 45% clip on back to the basket moves according to Synergy Sports Technology. The junior remains somewhat limited in his ability to step too far away from the basket, but his off the ball movement has made significant strides and he is showing marginal improvements in his low post game as a whole.
The Lobos have been a bit stronger at the defensive end of the floor, but have very much been a mixed bag in this regard. During the regular season New Mexico faced more spot-up and transition sets than any other offensive play, proving to be just average at defending both. Opposing teams had an adjusted field goal percentage of 49% out of spot-up scenarios and nearly 60% when running the break, the latter of which could come into play as Alabama runs well in transition. Where the Lobos have made their mark is in locking down isolation scorers, limiting opponents to less than 32% shooting which puts them in the top 13% nationally.
Alabama Crimson Tide, 1-seed
The Crimson Tide rode a slow steady game and tough defensive presence to a 22-win season and a first place finish in the SEC West after going 12-4 against conference competition. Alabama then proceeded to take it's frustrations at missing the NCAA Tournament and cruise past Coastal Carolina in their NIT opener, putting four players in double figures and shooting nearly 48% from the floor.
Despite the presence of JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell, Alabama is not a very strong offensive team overall. The forward duo averages over 30 points per game which accounts for nearly half of the team's scoring output, which obviously speaks to the supporting casts inconsistency. The Tide score well enough inside the arc (nearly 50% shooting), but are among the worst perimeter shooting teams in the country, connecting on just 30% of their shot attempts from beyond the arc with Trevor Releford proving to be the only truly efficient spot-up scorer on the roster.
Where 'Bama has managed to score with consistent success is in transition and in the low-post. The Crimson Tide shoot 58% from the floor when running the break with Mitchell and Charvez Davis proving the most efficient scorers here and of course Senario Hillman providing the presence of an explosive finisher. On the block Green has shined while recording a usage rate of 63%, ranking in the 85th percentile for low post scoring at the Division 1 level. His 55.3% shooting mark on back to the basket moves is easily the highest percentage on the team, going consistently to a reliable baby hook shot. He has no problem using his physical abilities to finish with great efficiency around the rim, but is still confined to scoring in the immediate area around the rim.
Alabama's defense has been among the best in the nation this season, ranking in the top ten in adjusted efficiency, effective field goal percentage against, two-point shooting against and they lead the nation in steal percentage. They excel across the board in various play types within the half court setting and few teams do a better job defending the mid-range game, which certainly will be a point of emphasis against New Mexico. The one area where they could find themselves susceptible is against the dribble drive game when it gets in to the lane, as the Tide have had some issues against short looks in the paint this season. But again, as a whole, we're talking about one of the best defensive units in college basketball.