The Alabama men's basketball team has a big opportunity to make an early-season statement when it faces 6th-ranked Duke in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off tonight.

The Crimson Tide (3-1) defeated Stillman and Georgia State to advance to Madison Square Garden, while the Blue Devils (5-1) beat UNC Asheville and East Carolina.

This will mark the first meeting between the two schools since December 13, 1986, when Mike Krzyewski was a hot young coach beginning his 7th season in Durham and fresh off his first Final Four appearance. Since that time, he's appeared in 10 more Final Fours, winning four national championships.

Things were also a bit different for the Crimson Tide program during the last meeting in 1986. Wimp Sanderson had just led his team to consecutive Sweet 16 appearances and would finish the '86-87 season with a 28-5 record and a conference championship. Alabama ended the year ranked eight spots higher in the final AP poll than Duke.

But those results have nothing to do with tonight's game. Alabama has only appeared in one NCAA Tournament under head coach Anthony Grant, and the coach himself has pointed to missed opportunities during non-conference games as one of the main reasons his team has been excluded from the tourney. Tonight's game gives his team a chance to pick up a huge win away from home and give itself a huge boost as it moves through a difficult pre-SEC schedule.

For the Crimson Tide to win tonight, they'll have accomplish the following:

1. Stay out of foul trouble

This will be a key to every game for Alabama this season, but it's extremely important tonight. Facing one of the nation's best lineups, the Crimson Tide will have to stay at full strength to stay with a team that's 6th in the nation in scoring. The majority of Alabama's offense comes from its starters (see Trevor Releford), so keeping them on the floor is essential.

2. Contain the big two for Duke - Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood

These two underclassmen combine for nearly 45 points and 14 rebounds per game and are shooting lights out from the field. Parker, a true freshman, has been one of the nation's most impressive players in November, while Hood, a sophomore transfer from Mississippi State, has continued to play a bigger role each game for Duke. Both guys are 6'8" so Alabama will be a bit undersized on one or both of those guys most of the night. Look for Rodney Cooper, Levi Randoph, Shannon Hale to be relied on defensively to keep these guys in check.

In one appearance against Alabama as a freshman for Mississippi State, Hood scored one point in 36 minutes. Don't expect a repeat of that, but maybe that performance will linger in the back of his mind tonight.

3. Trevor Releford and Retin Obasohan have to be aggresive offensively

We knew what to expect out of Releford as he entered this season as one of the nation's best point guards. But what Obasohan has provided has been a big bright spot on this team. Both of these guys are best when they attack the basket and seem to thrive around the rim. If they can keep that up, that will create some open 3s for teammates and help prevent the offense from going into any long droughts.

Duke opened as an 8-point favor and that's gone up a point today so Alabama isn't being given much of a chance, and that's ok. A loss still benefits Alabama in two ways. The team's RPI and strength of schedule will get a big boost all season just from playing, and the team will know exactly where it stands early in the season and can work to improve its weaknesses moving forward.

This matchup might be void of the hype it deserves because of the Iron Bowl looming over the horizon, but tonight is huge for the program. Tip off will come after the first semifinal between Drexel and Arizona with a scheduled television time of 8:30 PM CT on ESPN2.

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