When Avery Johnson took the Alabama basketball job three years ago, he had a plan for where he wanted the program to go — and that vision did not include missing the NCAA Tournament.
Johnson and his Crimson Tide basketball team achieved their goal Sunday afternoon when UA heard its name called — or, slightly less dramatically, saw “Alabama” pop up on an alphabetized list — for inclusion in the greatest show in college basketball for the first time in six years.
(Click HERE for video of the Alabama basketball team reacting to earning an NCAA Tournament bid.)
Alabama received a No. 9 seed and will face No. 8 seed Virginia Tech at approximately 8:20 p.m, on Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh as part of the NCAA East Region. The winner of Thursday night’s game will play Saturday, facing the winner of a first-round game between Villanova, the East’s No. 1 seed, and the winner of a Tuesday night “play-in”game between Radford and LIU-Brooklyn.
“This is something Coach (Bill) Battle and I talked about in that first job interview,” Johnson said, referring to the Alabama athletics director who hired him. “This is special. It hasn’t played out exactly the way I thought it would this year, but the main thing is that this team fought through adversity and won when it had to win.
“If we had been in the NIT for a third straight year, it would have been hard to call that progress.”
That probably included the teams two wins in the SEC Tournament in St. Louis, certainly the Thursday night win against Texas A&M.
“Losing that game wouldn’t have helped our chances,” Johnson said wryly. “The tournament helped us get a little bit of our swagger back. We are not overconfident but we were very disappointed at the way we finished the regular season (with a five-game losing streak.) We came close in a couple of games and then we had a couple of what Daniel Giddens referred to as our embarrassing performances.
“But our team came together and they stopped fighting (the coaches) on some things. They saw that when I told them to catch the ball with two hands, it wasn’t because I was being a mean coach, it’s because it’s better to catch with two hands. And when we started playing together, you could tell.”
Alabama players, who watched the NCAA Selection Show on the Coleman Coliseum Jumbotron from the club level dining room, echoed Johnson’s enthusiasm.
“We were trying to get to the NCAA Tournament all year,” said guard Avery Johnson, Jr. “We weren’t trying to get to the NIT. Maybe that’s good for other teams but we’d been two years in a row and needed to move past that.”
Virginia Tech (20-11) had a solid season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Hokies has wins over North Carolina and Duke in the regular season and were one of only two teams to post a win over No. 1 national seed Virginia, beating the Cavaliers 61-60 in Charlottesville.
“I haven’t seen any tape on them yet,” Johnson said. “I know just a little bit do know Buzz Williams (the Hokies’ head coach) very well. But I will know a lot more about them tomorrow. It will be around-the-clock work for us tonight.”
Alabama has not appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 2012,when it lost a first-round game against Creighton. The Crimson Tide last won an NCAA Tournament game in 2006 when it defeated Marquette in San Diego beside being eliminated by UCLA in the second round.
Donta Hall, the Crimson Tide forward who missed Saturday’s SEC semifinal game against Kentucky due to a concussion, was part of the team celebration Sunday.
“Right now, he’s day-to-day,” Johnson said. “I did ask him what two plus two was, and he said ‘four,’ so that’s progress. But we’ll evaluate him again (on Monday) and see what he can do, if anything, in practice.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.