March Madness: Alabama takes care of business, dusting Maryland to advance to Sweet Sixteen

Upsets wrecked brackets all over America in the NCAA men's tournament's first three days, but in Birmingham, No. 1 seed Alabama took care of its business in efficient, zero-doubt fashion. The Tide started slow but smothered the Terps with defensive efficiency, a reminder of the multifaceted threat this team poses to all remaining opponents in the tournament.

Despite suffering an uncharacteristically rough night from the field, Alabama dispatched No. 8 seed Maryland 73-51, leaving no doubt whatsoever that they'll be the likely favorites in however many games remain in their season.

Before a heavily partisan Birmingham crowd, Maryland leaped 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: frustrating Alabama into sloppy offensive playmaking and poor shot selection, sticking the Crimson Tide offense in mud so thick that the overall No. 1 seed didn’t even take its first lead until just 7:30 remained in the first half.

Alabama head coach Nate Oats predicted the first-half tempo on Friday afternoon. “They'd like it to be slower. We'd like it to be faster,” he said in his pregame news 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; shut down the offense and the defense finds a way to keep the team in the game. Alabama held Maryland to two separate first-half stretches of seven and six minutes without scoring a field goal. A flurry of six Maryland points in the final 90 seconds of the half to pull within five made the 28-23 first-half score a little more palatable, but the sloppiness was infectious; both teams ended the half shooting less than 40 percent.

Prior to the game, Maryland head coach Kevin Willard offered high praise for the Alabama 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 length, athleticism, how unselfish they play, very similar point guards.”

Alabama began the second half looking a bit like that ‘93-’94 Kentucky team, which lost in the round of 32, struggling to pull away from a clearly outmatched Maryland. But the Tide inevitably took advantage of Maryland’s stone-cold shooting, and by the time the half hit the 10-minute mark Alabama had a 15-point lead and the game was pretty much 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 down the Tide: limit possessions, force Alabama into off-balance midrange jumpers, and make the Tide pay for every interior basket. If Maryland could have converted even a few more of its missed layups and open jumpers, this could have been a very different outcome. Expect the Tide’s upcoming opponents to watch the tape of this game on repeat.

Saturday night's game was a rematch, and repeat, of a 2021 Round of 32 game, where then-No. 2 seed Alabama blew the doors off then-No. 10 seed Maryland 96-77. The 2021-model Tide would fall in an upset in the next round to 11th-seeded UCLA; the 2023 version's future remains very bright.

The best news of the night for Alabama — aside from the obvious survive-and-advance final score — was the triumphant return of Brandon Miller to the top of the box score. One game after he failed to score even 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 in foul trouble most of the game.

Miller and the entire Alabama team will be playing this whole tournament under a cloud thanks to his and other players’ presence at a Jan. 15 murder. The death of Jamea Harris, who was shot and killed on Tuscaloosa's Strip, near campus, looms large over the Tide's season, even as Alabama attempts to distance itself from the tragic events of that night. The further the Tide advances, the more the questions will be on their performance in March, not their actions in January.

The bracket devastation in the South Region gives Alabama a well-lit path, if not necessarily an open highway, through to the Final Four. The Tide will face fifth-seeded San Diego State next weekend, with No. 3 Baylor yet to play on Sunday.

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