New York Colleges: Colorado Buffaloes

Alabama, Colorado lay it on line in NIT

March, 30, 2011

NEW YORK -- After watching his game-winning jump shot attempt from the top of the key bounce off the rim, followed by the final horn, Colorado guard Alec Burks collapsed to the ground, and buried his head in his arms.

A chance to play in the National Invitation Tournament championship game clearly meant something to him.

It clearly meant a lot to both teams who battled in the second NIT semifinal on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.

"It's a great win for our team," said Alabama coach Anthony Grant, after his team's 62-61 victory over Colorado. "We are excited about the opportunity to compete for a championship."

Both Alabama and Colorado felt seriously jilted by the NCAA tournament selection committee back on March 13, Selection Sunday, when they didn't see their school’s name pop up on the TV screen. But each won three games over the past couple of weeks to get to New York City. And both teams played their hearts out in front of 6,082 fans at The World's Most Famous Arena on Tuesday night.

This matchup featured two teams with very different strengths. Alabama came in among the top 10 teams in the country in both field-goal percentage defense (38.3), and points allowed per game (59.2). Meanwhile, Colorado averages 80.1 points per game, and shoots 47.5 percent from the field -- both numbers among the top 20 in the country.

Alabama led by six at the half, Colorado led by five with six minutes remaining. And it was a nail-biter down the stretch. Trevor Releford, Alabama's freshman point guard, made a terrific baseline move for a lay-in with 12.6 seconds remaining, turning a 61-60 deficit into a 62-61 lead. And then Burks (20.5 ppg) -- the No. 18 scorer in the country (20.5 ppg), who had 20 points on the night -- created a great look off the dribble in the closing seconds, but just couldn't get the shot to go down.

"I'm really proud of our team and the way we fought, the way we competed and the way we hung in there and we just came up a little bit short tonight," said Colorado coach Tad Boyle. "We had some really good looks, and they just made one more play at the end than we did, and that was the difference in the game. That's what makes it so hard."

The Crimson Tide will play Wichita State (a 75-44 landslide winner over Washington State in Tuesday's first semifinal) on Thursday night for the NIT title. And that title is important to Alabama. In the Crimson Tide's locker room after the game, you couldn't help but notice what was written on the white board, in big red letters:


"Our guys very quickly turned the page [after Selection Sunday] and we were very excited about the opportunity to continue to play," Grant said. "There are a lot of teams that would have loved to have had the opportunity to compete in the NIT and we were fortunate to be one of those teams. So we are excited to be here in New York and our guys are excited about the opportunity to win a championship."

Many people think the NIT is no longer relevant, buried amidst the ever-growing NCAA tournament hype. Yes, it's not the Big Dance. It's a second chance -- for teams to continue to grow and develop, and for kids to prolong their college basketball careers.

"I was just praying that we'd come out with a victory," said Alabama forward JaMychal Green, who had a game-high 22 points but fouled out with 2:27 remaining. "My teammates and Coach told me they had my back [after fouling out]."

Releford said his game-winning layup was the biggest shot of his career.

Sounds like some people are taking this tournament very seriously.

Alabama and Wichita State are not playing in the tournament they dreamed of playing in this March. But they are still playing. And on Thursday night, they will play for a championship, in Madison Square Garden.

And win or lose, that will be a memory that lasts a lifetime.

Rapid Reaction: Alabama 62, Colorado 61

March, 29, 2011
NEW YORK -- A quick take on Alabama's 62-61 win over Colorado on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden:

WHAT IT MEANS: Alabama defeats fellow No. 1 seed Colorado in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals, and advances to the championship game. The Crimson Tide (25-11) have only been to the NIT final once before -- in 2001, when they lost to Tulsa.

The Buffaloes -- the NIT champions way back in 1940 -- finish their season at 24-14. The 24 wins are the most in school history.

THE SKINNY: It was a very competitive first half, with both teams making runs. A 12-1 streak by Colorado gave the Buffaloes their largest lead, 17-13; Alabama responded with a 17-2 streak, opening up its largest lead, 30-19. But Colorado closed it to six, 36-30, at halftime. Alec Burks had 13 points for the Buffaloes at the break; JaMychal Green had 12 for the Crimson Tide. Twelve first-half turnovers by Colorado really hurt.

In the second half, Alabama quickly pushed its lead back out to 10, but then Colorado went on a tear, propelled by a trio of 3-pointers by Levi Knutson. Alabama's leading scorer, Green, went out with four fouls with 12:19 remaining, and Colorado was able to open up its biggest lead of the game, 57-52, with 6:05 left. But then Green started doing work again, and it was a nailbiter from there -- even though Green fouled out with 2.27 to go. A lay-in by freshman point guard Trevor Releford gave the Crimson Tide a 62-61 lead with 12.6 seconds remaining. Then Burks missed a pretty good look from the top of the key that would have won it for Colorado at the buzzer.

STAR WATCH: Green led Alabama in scoring with 22 points, shooting 11-for-16 from the field. Releford was the only one of his teammates in double figures, with 13.

For Colorado, Burks -- who came in averaging 20.5 points per game, 18th in the country -- nailed his average, with 20. But he shot just 6-for-14, and missed the potential game-winner.

NUMBER CRUNCH: Colorado was the better shooting team coming in, but Alabama shot 50 percent for the game (28-for-56), and the Crimson Tide's strong defense limited the Buffaloes to 40 percent shooting (20-for-50).

WHAT'S NEXT: Alabama will take on No. 4 seed Wichita State for the NIT championship on Thursday night at 7 p.m. (airing on ESPN2).

Colorado flies home to Boulder -- its season is over.

The NIT Final Four -- a preview

March, 28, 2011
While the college basketball world is buzzing about next weekend’s NCAA tournament Final Four in Houston, we've got a Final Four of our own right here in our backyard, competing for the National Invitation Tournament championship.

It may lack the prestige of the Big Dance, but four quality teams have descended on the Big Apple this week -- three teams from BCS conferences, and a member of one of the best mid-major conferences in the country. They'll play on Tuesday and Thursday nights at Madison Square Garden, airing on ESPN2. And here's a preview of what you'll see:


Alabama (24-11): The Crimson Tide are led by second-year coach Anthony Grant, who in his previous stop piloted Virginia Commonwealth to two NCAA tournaments and an NIT berth in three years, and who recruited several of the key players on this year's VCU team that's in the NCAA Final Four. Alabama finished with the second-best record in the SEC, winning the Western Division at 12-4. It also beat Kentucky, another NCAA Final Four participant, 68-66 in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 18. ESPN's resident bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, listed Alabama as the very first team under the cutline in his final bracket projection before the selection show.

Key Players: Alabama's top two scorers are a pair of forwards -- 6-foot-6 sophomore Tony Mitchell (15.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, .526 FG percentage) and 6-foot-8 junior JaMychal Green (15.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg, .496 FG percentage). And then there's 6-foot-1 point guard Trevor Releford (11.0 ppg, 3.4 apg, 3.3 rpg), who made the All-SEC freshman team.

Key Stats: Alabama's strength is its defense -- and what's the old saying, defense wins championships? The Crimson Tide are third in the country in field-goal percentage defense (38.3 percent), sixth in steals (9.4 per game) and seventh in points allowed per game (59.2) -- that's pretty impressive stuff.


Colorado (24-13): Many people thought the Buffaloes belonged in the NCAA tournament instead of, say, VCU -- after all, they beat Kansas State three times, and also had wins over Texas and Missouri. Colorado finished tied for fifth in the Big 12 with Mizzou at 8-8 under first-year coach Tad Boyle, who was hired after spending four seasons at Northern Colorado. The team's 24 total wins this season are the most in school history.

Key Players: Colorado has four players who average in double-figures in scoring, but the star is 6-foot-6 sophomore guard Alec Burks (20.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg), the No. 18 scorer in the country. Burks is one of only four players nationally to average more than 20 points, 6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game this season. Beyond Burks, keep an eye on 6-foot-5 senior guard Cory Higgins (16.1 ppg), who has 1,998 career points, and needs 14 more in the NIT to top Richard Roby and become the school's all-time leading scorer.

Key Stats: It will be a severe contrast of styles when Colorado and Alabama face off in the second semifinal on Tuesday night, because Colorado is one of the best offensive teams in the country. The Buffaloes are ranked No. 11 in the nation in scoring (80.1 ppg), and No. 16 in field goal percentage (47.5). Even better, they're No. 5 from the charity stripe, knocking down 77.6 percent of their free throws.


Washington State (22-12): The Cougars finished in sixth place in the Pac-10 this season at 9-9 under second-year coach Ken Bone, who replaced Tony Bennett after he departed for Virginia. Washington State beat their arch-rival and NCAA tournament-bound Washington twice, blew out Gonzaga by 22, and lost by just two to Elite Eight participant Arizona on Jan. 22

Key Players: Colorado's Burks isn't even the best scorer in the NIT Final Four -- that honor goes to Washington State's Klay Thompson. The 6-foot-6 junior guard is averaging 22.0 points per game, leading the Pac-10 and ranking him ninth nationally. Thompson's 727 points this season are the most by a Pac-10 player since Eddie House scored 736 in 1999-2000. (Thompson was also arrested on March 4 and cited for marijuana possession, and suspended for the Cougars' regular-season finale against UCLA). Washington State's second-leading scorer is 6-foot-4 junior guard Faisal Aden, who averages 12.9 points per game off the bench.

Key Stats: Washington State, like Alabama, is also very good on the defensive end -- the Cougars are No. 18 in the country in field-goal percentage defense (39.6 percent), and No. 30 in 3-point field goal defense (31.4). But their numbers offensively are also good, scoring 73.7 points per game (No. 54 in country) and shooting 45.9 percent (No. 59).


Wichita State (27-8): The Shockers are the lone non-BCS team in the NIT Final Four, but they had an excellent season, finishing in second place in the always-tough Missouri Valley Conference at 14-4, one game behind Missouri State. Wichita State played two of this year's NCAA Final Four participants -- losing by just four to UConn in Maui in November, and losing by just one at home to VCU on BracketBusters weekend in February. Head coach Gregg Marshall, in his fourth year, led Winthrop to seven NCAA tournaments in nine years, before moving on to Wichita.

Key Players: Wichita State has just one player who averages in double-figures in scoring -- 6-foot-8 senior center J.T. Durley. But even he only scores 11.4 points per game. The Shockers have about as balanced an attack as you'll ever see -- 10 players average at least 14 minutes per game, and no one averages more than 26 minutes. Eight players average at least six points per game.

Key Stats: The Shockers are No. 7 in the country in rebounding margin, outboarding opponents by an average of 7.9 per game -- that's outstanding. They're also a very good shooting team, making 46.7 percent from the field (No. 34 in country) and 74.6 percent from the foul line (No. 35).


Alabama's defense is strong enough for the Crimson Tide to prevail over Colorado, while Klay Thompson has a big game in leading Washington State over Wichita State. And in the championship game on Thursday night, Alabama puts the shackles on Thompson, and Anthony Grant gets to hoist the NIT trophy, before watching his former players take on Butler in a fairy-tale NCAA national semifinal.