BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It upset seeded groups across America in the first three days of the NCAA Men’s Tournament, but in Birmingham, No. 1 seed Alabama took care of business in efficient, no-doubt fashion. The Tide got off to a slow start, but stifled the Terps with defensive efficiency, a reminder of the multi-faceted threat this team poses to all other tournament opponents.
Despite suffering an uncharacteristically tough night from the field, Alabama knocked off No. 8 seed Maryland 73-51, leaving no doubt that they’ll be the odds-on favorite for however many games left in the season.
In front of a heavily partisan Birmingham crowd, 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 with sloppy offensive play and poor shot selection, sticking the Crimson Tide’s offense in such thick mud that the No. 1 overall seed couldn’t didn’t even take its first lead until just 7:30 remained in the first half.
Alabama head coach Nate Oates predicted the pace of the first half on Friday afternoon. “They would like it to be slower. We would like it to be faster,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “They’re going to press in a way that slows the game down, and we’re going to try to attack the press in a way that speeds the game up.”
The problem for Maryland is that Alabama is a hydra; stops the offense and the defense finds a way to keep the team in the game. Alabama held Maryland to two separate stretches of seven and six minutes in the first half without a field goal. A six-point flurry by Maryland in the final 90 seconds of the half to pull within five made the 28-23 halftime score a little more palatable, but the sloppiness was contagious; both teams finished the half shooting under 40%.
Before the game, Maryland head coach Kevin Willard spoke highly of Alabama’s lineup. “I think [Alabama] is the most talented lineup I’ve seen in college basketball since the ’93-’94 Kentucky team,” he said Friday. “This team reminds me of that one with the length, the athleticism, how unselfish they play, a lot of similar point guards.”
Alabama started the second half looking a little like that ’93-’94 Kentucky team that lost in the round of 16, struggling to pull away from a clearly beaten Maryland. But the Tide inevitably took advantage of Maryland’s cold-blooded shooting, and by the time the half reached the 10-minute mark, Alabama had a 15-point lead and the game was largely in hand.
If there’s a bright spot for Maryland, it’s that the Terps provided a defensive template for how to at least slow the Tide: limiting possessions, forcing Alabama into off-balance midrange jumpers and making the Tide pay for every inside basket. If Maryland could have converted even a few more of its missed layups and open jumpers, it could have been a very different result. Expect the Tide’s upcoming opponents to re-watch the tape of this game.
Saturday night’s game was a rematch and replay of the 2021 Round of 32, where then-No. 2 seed Alabama blew the doors off then-No. 10 seed Maryland 96-77. The 2021 Tide would fall in upset in the next round to 11th-seeded UCLA; the future of the 2023 version remains very bright.
The best news of the night for Alabama — aside from the obvious bottom line of survival and advancement — was Brandon Miller’s triumphant return to the top of the rankings. One game after not scoring a single point due to the effects of a groin injury, Miller found his footing and scored 19 points, second on the team behind Jahvon Quinerly’s 22. Maryland’s Julian Reese led the Terps with 14 points, but was in foul trouble most of the game.
Miller and the entire Alabama team will play this entire tournament under a cloud thanks to his presence and the presence of other current and former players in the Jan. 15 slaying. The death of Jamea Harris, who was shot and killed on the Tuscaloosa Strip near campus, looms large over the high school season even as Alabama tries to distance itself from the tragic events of that night. The more the Tide progress, the more questions will focus on their performance in March rather than their actions in January.
The devastation in the South Region gives Alabama a well-lit path, if not necessarily an open highway, to the Final Four. The Tide will face fifth-seeded San Diego State next week in the Sweet 16, with No. 3 Baylor yet to play its second-round game against Creighton on Sunday.