Tournament disappointment behind it, Tide prepares for NIT


CW/ Hannah Saad

Ben Stansell, Assistant Sports Editor

There hasn’t been much for coach Avery Johnson to smile about in the past several days.

After losing to Kentucky by 18 points in the SEC tournament, Alabama narrowly missed the NCAA tournament when the 68-team field was revealed on Sunday. The Crimson Tide was the second team to not make the big dance.

However, Alabama (18-15) was announced as a No. 1 seed in the NIT tournament and will host MAEC regular season champion Norfolk State (21-13) in the opening round on Wednesday night at 6 p.m. in Coleman Coliseum.

Even though the cloud of disappointment at not making the NCAA tournament has yet to dissipate for many Alabama hoops fans, Johnson sees the NIT tournament as a silver lining. To him, it’s a stepping stone to next season.

“It’s not just closure on this season, but it’s a jumpstart on next year,” Johnson said. “Especially for our returning players that need more practice in live games playing against good competition.”

Alabama is losing four seniors to graduation, but is expected to return most of its core from this season. For Johnson, the NIT will give Alabama an opportunity to clean up some of the mistakes that dogged the Crimson Tide all season, particularly poor performances after halftime.

“Our second halves were abysmal this year, surrendering too many double-digit leads,” Johnson said. “If we’re fortunate enough in a particular game to have a double-digit lead in the second half, let’s see if we can finish the game and not foul or turn the ball over or miss our free throws or whatever plagued us this year.”

While Johnson has eyes to the future, he’s aware that this is the final chapter for several of Alabama’s veteran players.

One of the seniors who will be playing in his final few games for the Crimson Tide is Riley Norris. When he takes the floor against Norfolk State on Wednesday, he will become the program’s leader in career games played with 136, breaking his tie with former Alabama guard Levi Randolph, who played in 135.

That, at least, has brought a smile to Johnson’s face.

“I haven’t had much to smile about over the last couple days, but that’s one of them, just knowing that he’s going to play in his 136th game and break Levi’s record,” Johnson said. “That’s just amazing. It shows a lot of durability, stamina and a guy playing through pain. You can always count on him.”

Expect Norris to display the same passion and hustle that he used to help keep Alabama afloat during the final stretch of the regular season.

“We were finding out we were one of the first four teams that didn’t make it, that’s kind of devastating,” Norris said. “But at the same time, this is a new opportunity. I think this is the right way to send our seniors out, not only myself but the other three seniors. It’s a chance for our younger guys to get more practice.”

A win over Norfolk State would give Alabama’s its first NIT win under Johnson. The Crimson Tide currently sit at 0-2 in the tournament under his watch.

If Alabama conquers Norfolk State, it could set up a second round matchup against Dayton, who is led by former Crimson Tide coach Anthony Grant. The Flyers would first have to beat Colorado as well.