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March 18, 2013TUSCALOOSA | It wasn't his preferred destination, but the National Invitation Tournament holds fond memories for Trevor Releford.
As a freshman he led the University of Alabama in scoring in the 2011 tournament, including 22 points against Miami and a game-winning layup in the semifinals against Colorado in New York City's famed Madison Square Garden.
He and the team, one that also narrowly missed out on the NCAA tournament, used that experience as a sort of fuel for the next season's run into the field of 68.
That's the recipe entering tonight's first-round game against Northeastern.
"We know it's not the Big Dance, but at the same it gives the young guys on our team opportunity to get some more experience and play against some good competition," Releford said.
Northeastern enters with an RPI of 159 but has Alabama's full respect. After all, it was December losses to low-rated RPI teams Tulane (179), Mercer (121) and Dayton (113) that likely kept the Crimson Tide out of the NCAA tournament.
With winning the tournament as goal No. 1, creating some positive momentum for the next season is also important.
"Every time we go into a tournament like this, our focus is on trying to win a championship," Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. "The effect of what you do with that opportunity certainly could help as you move forward. The focus right now is on this team trying to advance in this tournament.
"Our experience the last time we were in this is it's an extremely well-run tournament, a very competitive tournament. There are excellent teams throughout the field. It's an opportunity to play at home and try to advance to New York. To play in Madison Square Garden would be a great opportunity."
The Huskies have three players who average more than 10 points per game, and former Hillcrest High School forward Reggie Spencer scores 9.8.
Senior guards Joel Smith and Jonathan Lee combine for 30 points per game.
"Joel Smith is a two-guard who shoots the ball extremely well and is very versatile at 6-foot-4. He scores in a variety of ways," Grant said. "Jonathan Lee is their point guard/off guard, he's a scorer and a guy who get who can get to the free throw line. He's the spark plug of their team, so to speak."
Even with the focus on the NIT, the hangover from not making the NCAA tournament was obvious.
Grant said it was a disappointment, and Releford admitted he didn't even watch the selection show.
"It was a little weird (not watching the show)," Releford said. "It was a kind of superstition that I didn't want to watch it."
Grant, however, didn't disagree with being left out of the field.
"(I) can't say based on our overall body of work that it's a surprise," he said. "I felt like we had to do more in SEC tournament."
Reach Aaron Suttles at Aaron@TideSports.com or at 205-722-0229.