Alabama shines on big stage at MSG

NEW YORK -- You can’t punch your ticket to March Madness in November. But you can raise eyebrows, and expectations.

That’s what Alabama did the past two days in the Big Apple.

After squeaking past Oregon State in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic on Thursday, the Crimson Tide dominated Villanova in the title tilt, 77-55 at Madison Square Garden.

“I hope Alabama is a great team,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright. “I think they’re a lot better than us right now.”

Alabama proved that in the second half Friday night, after leading by just three, 29-26, at intermission. Alabama relinquished the lead briefly, when Villanova scored the first five points following the break. But after that, it was all Crimson Tide.

“We came out tonight, and really for 40 minutes, really did a good job,” said Alabama coach Anthony Grant. “Defensively I thought it was a great effort. You look at the numbers from a defensive standpoint, I felt like it was a pretty dominating performance for our guys.”

It certainly was. The Wildcats shot just 15-for-47 from the field (31.9 percent). Freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who led the team in scoring over its first three games (18 ppg), was blanketed. He had 11 points, but shot just 1-for-8 from 3-point range, many of them poor looks.

“They did a great job of taking Ryan out of our offense,” Wright said.

Alabama’s guards, on the other hand, were outstanding, on both ends of the floor. Leading scorer Trevor Lacey (19.3 ppg) got in early foul trouble, and finished with just seven points. But Trevor Releford and Rodney Cooper picked up the slack, finishing with 25 and 17 points, respectively. They combined to shoot 15-for-20 from the field.

Releford drained all five of his 3-point attempts. Grant inserted him in the starting lineup after bringing him off the bench in the team’s first three games of the year.

“I thought for our team, that was the best move for us to make,” Grant said. “Villanova does a great job defensively, and I felt like for us to go out and get off to a good start and put ourselves in position to be successful, I felt like that was the best thing for the team today.”

“I thought Trevor was terrific,” Grant added. “You look at his numbers, he did a great job of being aggressive and attacking.”

Villanova (3-1) heads home to Philadelphia with mixed feelings. A blowout loss at the Garden hurts, but the Wildcats did beat a scrappy Purdue team in overtime in the semifinals. Four games in, Arcidiacono looks like a legit Big East guard. And sophomore forward JayVaughn Pinkston followed up a 16-point performance against the Boilermakers with a team-high 17 against the Crimson Tide.

The Wildcats were picked to finish 12th in the Big East, but they could surprise.

“I think we have the potential to be a good team,” Wright said. “We are definitely a work in progress. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Alabama (4-0) wants to prove some people wrong, too. Coming off the school’s first NCAA tournament berth in six years, the Crimson Tide were picked to finish just sixth in the SEC this season -- which would likely land them on the bubble for the Big Dance, at best.

They look better than that right now. But remember, we haven’t even hit Thanksgiving yet.

Also recall Alabama got off to a hot start a year ago, winning its first seven games, including a pre-Thanksgiving tournament in Puerto Rico. And the team still had to scratch and claw its way into the Big Dance.

Grant’s got a young squad -- of the seven players who got 20 or more minutes Friday night, there were two juniors, four sophomores and a freshman. These guys have a lot of basketball to play, and a lot of growing up to do.

That’s why the Alabama coach didn’t want to talk about defying expectations just yet.

“We’re four games in,” Grant said. “I don’t have a crystal ball. We just gotta continue to try to get better, and grow and learn.”

Sounds like a good plan on Nov. 16.