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Alabama is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.

Alabama football comes first, but Dazon Ingram wants to clear space for basketball

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Dazon Ingram was clear when asked what Alabama basketball making the 2018 NCAA Tournament means for the program.

In Year 3 of Avery Johnson’s tenure, the Crimson Tide are back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2012. Alabama is a No. 9 seed and will match up against No. 8 Virginia Tech. The Crimson Tide and Hokies will meet Thursday at approximately 9:20 p.m. ET on TNT in Pittsburgh in the East Region.

“It’s huge. It shows that we’re trending in the right direction as Alabama basketball,” Ingram said. “It’s not just a football school anymore; it’s a basketball school, too.”

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To Ingram’s point, Alabama has long been more than a football school as gymnastics, softball and men’s and women’s golf have won national championships.

While Alabama may not be ready to break through to that level in basketball, just making the tournament is a step in the right direction.

To its credit, Alabama has the athletes to compete with any team in the country. It’ll come down to taking care of the ball and making shots.

Alabama will face a scrappy Virginia Tech team that owns wins over Duke and Clemson. The Hokies are one of two teams with a victory over No. 1 overall seed Virginia. The Hokies (21-11, 10-8 ACC) lost their first game of the ACC Tournament to Notre Dame.

“We have a lot of confidence,” Ingram said. “As long as our jumpers are falling and we’re getting stops on defense, I feel like we can play with anybody.”

Alabama lost its last five games of the regular season, but has regained confidence in the SEC Tournament. The Crimson Tide picked up two victories, starting with a buzzer-beater over Texas A&M before blowing out Auburn in the quarterfinals last Friday.

Alabama is coming off an 86-63 loss to Kentucky in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament.

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Alabama is riding the hot hand of freshman Collin Sexton, who recorded his 15th 20-point performance of the season against Kentucky, scoring 21 points to become the Crimson Tide’s all-time leading scorer in the SEC Tournament with 79 points.

Alabama will need more than Sexton if it hopes to make a tournament run. Players such as Ingram, John Petty and Braxton Key must provide more offensive punch.

Petty found his stroke in the second half against Kentucky, which is a positive sign considering his struggles away from Coleman Coliseum this season. He finished the contest with 18 points and made 5 3-pointers. Johnson said that was the one positive from the loss.

Ingram and Key struggled against Kentucky, combining for 7 points on 3-of-16 shooting. Both know they need to step up.

“We’ve got to step up and take our shots with confidence,” Key said. “We’re capable shooters so we’ll be fine.”

Making things tricky for Alabama is the health of forward Donta Hall (concussion). During the SEC coaches teleconference on Monday, Johnson said Hall will be a “game-time decision” Thursday. It’ll be a big blow for the Crimson Tide if Hall isn’t able to go. He finishes well around the rim, rebounds and anchors Alabama’s defense.