Puerto Rico Tipoff title showcases how far Alabama has come

Jeff Eisenberg

Eight months after Alabama didn't hear its name called on Selection Sunday as a result of its dreadful non-conference performance, the Crimson Tide are already taking strides to make sure that doesn't happen again.

A 65-56 victory over Purdue on Sunday night made Alabama the champion of the Puerto Rico Tipoff and validated the Crimson Tide as a legitimate top 20 team. Alabama already got revenge on Missouri Valley co-favorite Wichita State for its win in the title game of the NIT a year ago, giving the Tide two straight marquee victories and their first 5-0 start since 2006.

The smiles and high fives after Sunday's win were a stark contrast to the depressing scene the last time Alabama participated in a preseason tournament. The Tide dropped all three games at the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands last November to Seton Hall, Iowa and St. Peter's, losses that helped put them in an early hole from which they could not recover.

A 12-4 mark in the SEC was not enough to overshadow a non-league slate in which the Tide's best victory came against a Lipscomb team that wasn't even a contender in the lightly regarded Atlantic Sun Conference. Three straight losses in the Paradise Jam and squandered opportunities against Purdue, Oklahoma State and Providence relegated the Tide to the NIT.

The primary reason for an Alabama revival that began during SEC play last year  has been the program's increased emphasis on defense. Opposing teams are averaging 51.8 points per game against the Tide this season and shooting just 31.8 percent from the floor, staggering numbers considering the quality of competition Alabama has faced.

Purdue entered Sunday's game averaging 84.5 points, but the Boilermakers couldn't solve Alabama's high pressure defense either. They scored just five points in the game's opening eight minutes and shot 35.7 percent for the game, not good enough even though Alabama's sometimes-sporadic offense endured a nearly nine minute drought of its own in the first half to keep the score close. {YSP:MORE}

"We've played them the last two years, but they have really improved defensively," Purdue coach Matt Painter told Rivals.com affiliate TideSports.com. "Their athleticism, their length and their ability to change defenses really caused us problems. We have some good shooters who missed shots, some they rushed and some they flat missed. But when you have to work so hard to get a clean look, sometimes when you get a clean look, you tend to rush it."

As a result of last year's Selection Sunday disappointment, Alabama coach Anthony Grant assembled a far more difficult schedule for the Crimson Tide this year.

In December alone, Alabama hosts Georgetown and Horizon League contender Detroit, travels to Dayton and faces Kansas State and Oklahoma State on neutral floors. That's a daunting slate, but the Tide showed this weekend in Puerto Rico that they're up for the challenge.