BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Disturbed brackets across America during the first three days of the NCAA men’s tournament, but in Birmingham, No. 1 Alabama ran its affairs in an efficient, questionable manner. The Tide got off to a slow start, but smothered the Terps with defensive efficiency, a reminder of the multifaceted threat this team poses to all remaining opponents in the tournament.
Despite an unusually tough night from the field, Alabama routed No. 8 seed Maryland 73-51, leaving no doubt that they will be the likely favorites in how many games are left in their season.
In front of a heavily partisan crowd in Birmingham, Maryland jumped out to an early 9-2 lead. The Terps spent the first half of the game doing what few other teams have been able to do this season: frustrate Alabama into sloppy offensive playplay and poor shot selection, bury Crimson Tide’s offense so thick in the mud that the overall No. 1 seed it didn’t even take the first lead until there was only 7:30 left in the first half.
Alabama head coach Nate Oats predicted the pace of the first half on Friday afternoon. “They want it to slow down. We would like to see it go faster,” he said during his pre-match press conference. “They’re going to press in a way that slows down the game, and we’re going to try to attack the press in a way that speeds up the game.”
The problem for Maryland is that Alabama is a hydra; shut down the offense and the defense finds a way to keep the team in play. Alabama held Maryland to two separate periods of seven and six minutes in the first half without scoring a field goal. A flurry of six Maryland points in the last 90 seconds of the half to score within five made the 28-23 first half score a little more palatable, but the sloppiness was infectious; both teams finished the half with less than 40% shooting.
Prior to the game, Maryland head coach Kevin Willard gave high praise to Alabama’s roster. “I think [Alabama] is the most talented roster I’ve seen in college basketball since the ’93-’94 Kentucky team,” he said Friday. “This team reminds me of that team with the height, athleticism, how selflessly they play, very similar point guards.”
Alabama started the second half looking a bit like that ’93-’94 Kentucky team, losing in the round of 32 and struggling to get away from a clearly outscored Maryland. But the Tide inevitably took advantage of Maryland’s stone-cold shooting, and by the time the half reached the 10-minute mark, Alabama had a 15-point lead and the game was pretty much in their hands.
If there’s one bright spot for Maryland, it’s that the Terps provided a defensive template to at least slow the tide: Limit possessions, force Alabama into off-balance midrange jumpers, and make the tide pay for every basket in the interior. If Maryland could have converted a few more of its missed layups and open jumpers, it could have been a very different outcome. Expect the Tide’s upcoming opponents to watch the tape of this match repeatedly.
Saturday night’s game was a rematch and replay of a 2021 round of 32 games where then No. 2 seed Alabama blew the doors off – no. 10 seeds Maryland 96-77. The 2021 Tide model would go on an upset against 11th-seeded UCLA in the next round; the future of the 2023 version remains very bright.
The best news of the night for Alabama – aside from the obvious final score of surviving and moving forward – was Brandon Miller’s triumphant return to the top of the box score. A game after failing to score a single point due to the effects of a groin injury, Miller found his footing and scored 19 points, second on the team to Jahvon Quinerly’s 22. Maryland’s Julian Reese led the Terps with 14 points, but was within error problems most of the game.
Miller and the entire Alabama team will play under a cloud this entire tournament thanks to the presence of his and other current and former players in a January 15 kill. The death of Jamea Harris, who was shot and killed on Tuscaloosa’s Strip, near campus, looms over Tide season, even as Alabama tries to distance itself from the night’s tragic events. The further the tide goes on, the more the questions will focus on their performance in March, not their actions in January.
The major devastation in the Southern Region gives Alabama a well-lit path, if not necessarily an open highway, to the Final Four. The Tide will take on fifth-seeded San Diego State in the Sweet 16 next week, with No. 3 Baylor yet to play its second-round pick against Creighton on Sunday.