NEW YORK -- As his team gathered in a huddle during a media timeout while leading Villanova by 10 with 11:35 remaining in Friday's 2k Sports Classic final, Anthony Grant issued a pertinent reminder. Just one evening prior, the Crimson Tide had been up 14 on Oregon State with less than 10 minutes to play, but became so passive in protecting their advantage that they came within a whistle of losing it. Only a timeout called by Beavers coach Craig Robinson a moment prior prevented Ahmad Starks' would-be game-tying three from counting, and when Oregon State couldn't score in the final 12 seconds, the Tide eked out a 65-62 win.
And so, Grant said after the Villanova game, his players "were reminded that we needed to play it out, that we needed to understand that we've got to finish games and how to do that, what we needed to do to accomplish that -- that we needed to stay aggressive."
Message received: Beginning with a three from Rodney Cooper on its next possession, Alabama turned an advantage into a romp, pulling away in a 77-55 win to end the two-day event celebrating midcourt at Madison Square Garden.
"I thought we did a better job tonight of dealing with [the lead]," Grant said. "It's about getting better and I thought this tournament allowed us to do that."
While the 2k Sports Classic's field was not exactly loaded -- Alabama was the lone participant picked higher than eighth in its league -- what it allowed was a glimpse at how Alabama, picked sixth in the SEC's preseason media poll, might make a run at returning to the NCAA tournament after ending a five-season drought last March. The Tide is young -- five of its six players to play over 20 minutes against Villanova are underclassmen -- but guard Trevor Releford, a junior, displayed the kind of assertiveness and creativity Alabama's sometimes stagnant offense will need with JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell, last year's two highest-usage players, both gone.
Coming off the bench against Oregon State he did his damage penetrating, taking over the final 6:05 of the first half, first with a nifty crossover into the paint and dump to freshman Devonta Pollard for a layup; then scored on a bucket of his own while drawing a foul and absorbing contact from the Beavers' 6-foot-7, 295-pound Joe Burton; on the next possession, a fake pass while driving before laying it in; and just before the half, a twisting right-handed layup after driving across the lane to the left of the basket. One night later, restored to the starting lineup for the first time this season to prevent an early deficit, Releford lit up Villanova from outside, sinking all five of his three-point attempts and scoring 10 of Alabama's first 21 points. Between the two games, the eventual tournament MOP finished with 39 points, six assists and just one turnover on 14-of-20 shooting from the field while making 6-of-7 free throws.
"It was great to see him be aggressive offensively," Grant said Friday. "He had a great shooting night tonight and was the catalyst for the way the rest of our guys responded."
Friday's three-point barrage was a remarkable turnaround from Releford's outside shooting over the season's first three games, during which he hit just 1-of-7 attempts, and a departure from the 27.9 percent and 27.3 percent showings of his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa. But the three has been both kind to and well-deployed by Alabama through its first four games. This is unusual. Both last season's tournament team and 2011's NIT runner-up squad shot under 30 percent from deep, and the shot is not an integral part of Grant's offense: none of his three Tide teams before this season have ranked higher than 285th nationally in their three-point attempt rate.
Yet it was a three-pointer from sophomore Trevor Lacey that gave college basketball its first buzzer-beater of the season in the Tide's 70-67 season-opening win against South Dakota State. And it was a three from Cooper with 13 seconds left that provided the winning margin against Oregon State in the semifinal. And it was a pair of threes from Releford that shoveled dirt on Villanova late in the second half, the second of which put the Tide up 19 with just over five minutes on the clock, prompting a Wildcats timeout to a soundtrack of "Roll Tide" cries from the stands behind the basket.
But as the Tide attempt (35.9 percent of their field goals, highest of any Grant-coached team) and connect on (40.9 percent) more threes on offense, much remains unchanged about their defense. Its pressure still suffocates and disrupts, as evidenced by Oregon State's 20 turnovers in a 64-possession game and Friday's shutdown of standout Villanova freshman Ryan Arcidiacono. "We wanted to blitz him," Cooper said after the game, and the Wildcats' lead playmaker was effectively sacked, hitting just 3-of-11 field-goal attempts and struggling to set up the offense while trying to fend off the Tide's pressing guards. Villanova is a team trying to find its footing with two new starting guards after bottoming out last season; a game against Alabama's defense, which has ranked in the top 10 nationally in efficiency the past two seasons, is no time to do so. The Wildcats shot 31.9 percent from the field and mustered a mere eight points in the first 11:40 of the second half.
"We couldn't do anything against them," said Villanova coach Jay Wright.
Before the tournament, Grant had responded to a reporter's question about what fun activities the team might do in New York
Yet this was a tournament of teams in transition trying to break out of their power conferences' middle class. The SEC, on the other hand, will be a more unforgiving gantlet; December brings nonconference road trips to likely tourney teams in Cincinnati and VCU. In his post-game press conference, Grant offered another reminder: Last season the Tide won the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, then lost three out of four shortly thereafter. So this is an encouraging start, yes. But there is much to be finished.