LAFAYETTE, Ind. — NCAA Tournament wins are always worth celebrating. But with two games per weekend, winning the first contest always means a quick turnaround. Celebration turns to preparation within hours, and the next opponent always presents a new challenge.
No. 10-seed Maryland men’s basketball outlasted No. 7-seed Connecticut, 63-54, at Mackey Arena on Saturday, March 20. It was the Terps’ first win against both a power-conference team and a higher-seeded opponent in the NCAA Tournament since 2009. But this group is hungry for a lot more.
The Terps had an hour-long bus ride between the arena in West Lafayette and the hotel in Indianapolis. And they knew it would be a sad, dark hour home had they fallen to the Huskies. Even in victory, though, the reaction was surprisingly subdued.
“You wouldn’t have even thought that we had just won if someone had stepped on the bus and looked at all the guys,” junior guard Aaron Wiggins said.
“We were just trying to move on,” senior guard Darryl Morsell said. “Leave that win at the gym.”
Maryland was a 3.5-point underdog against the Huskies, but everyone in the locker room expected a victory. And when they got it, they knew No. 2-seed Alabama was up next.
The SEC regular-season and tournament champions are essentially this tournament’s “fifth No. 1 seed,” Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said. Alabama enters the March 22 meeting 25-6 overall. It has excelled on both ends of the floor all season, with an offense averaging 79.2 points per game and a defense that ranks second nationally in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency (the Tide were actually No. 1 before Loyola Chicago took the top spot with their stifling of Illinois).
Alabama, like Maryland, plays a staunch brand of defense that slows opponents down. But the Crimson Tide race out on offense — they’re second in the country in average possession length, per KenPom. Their shot selection is reminiscent of NBA teams, with 46.6 percent of their field goals coming from 3-point range (17th nationally) and nearly all of their 2-pointers coming at the basket.
Four Alabama players — Jaden Shackelford, Jahvon Quinerly, Herb Jones and John Petty Jr. — average double-digit points. Joshua Primo and Keon Ellis fill out the backcourt, while Jordan Bruner and Alex Reese are the top post options. Bruner, a graduate transfer from Yale, was one of Maryland’s top targets this offseason before he signed in Tuscaloosa. Alabama plays a small-ball style similar to that of the Terps, but it’s been far more consistent and dominant with it.
“We’ve played a lot of fast teams, but they probably play the fastest, probably shoot the quickest, probably the most athletic team we’ve played, and we’ve played some athletic teams,” Turgeon said. “And what makes them really hard to guard is they can shoot the three, but they’re all really good off the dribble too.”
No. 15-seed Iona, though, gave the Crimson Tide somewhat of a scare in the opening round. Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino’s Gaels led as late as 42-40 with 12:12 left before Alabama pulled away for a 68-55 win. Iona ran the Tide off the 3-point line, holding them to 5-of-16 shooting from distance (Alabama averages 35 percent shooting on nearly 30 triples per game).
Maryland enters this Round of 32 matchup as a 5.0-point underdog, perhaps a surprisingly low number given the seeding difference. But this year’s Terps are no stranger to pulling off shockers. And they know they need this one to keep their season alive. So they don’t plan on backing down.
“We’re ready for it. This is what we’ve been talking about all year,” Morsell said of the postseason stage. “We feel like we had a great opportunity to do something special last year, so we’re just trying to use that as motivation and just enjoy the moment and get the most out of it. But we’re gamers. We love the big game, we love the crowds, we’ve got an us-against-the-world mentality, so we love this type of stuff.”
Senior forward Galin Smith spent three seasons with the Crimson Tide, appearing in 94 games. He joined Maryland as a graduate transfer in the offseason and has been a rotational piece in an undersized frontcourt. But when the NCAA Tournament bracket came out, the Terps quickly noticed a potential matchup with Alabama, which still has many of Smith’s closest friends.
“We were taking these group pictures up on this rooftop with the bracket behind us, and Alabama was up there when we were up there,” Turgeon said. “They love Galin. It was really cool to see. They were yelling his name and ‘G’ and all this, and he went over and he was giving them all hugs.”
Turgeon described the Terps having a similar reunion with Joshua Tomaic, whose San Diego State team was knocked out in the opening round by Syracuse. Smith, though, actually gets the chance to play against his former teammates. And against a coach in Nate Oats, who decided he was no longer a fit.
“I like Galin a lot,” Oats said. “I like him as a kid and a young man. He was great when we came in. His attitude was always good. We sat down after the year and talked. We had a good man-to-man talk about what our system looks like and what he is best at. I thought he was trying hard to change his game into what our system needed out of a big. We talked about it and he was getting better at it, but I thought he would play more minutes in a system that valued a traditional big more.
“He decided to look in the portal and see what was out there and Maryland gave him a good chance to play in a system that is more like that. He went and took it.”
Smith’s production has been similar this season to what it was at Alabama — he’s averaging 3.7 points and 2.3 rebounds in 13.9 minutes per game, compared to 3.1 points and 2.5 boards in 13.1 minutes last season under Oats. He played only seven minutes against UConn and had one point and one rebound. But his familiarity with the Crimson Tide is an intriguing asset, and longtime friends are fired up to share the floor on the sport’s biggest stage.
“I remember him like he was my best friend,” Alabama forward John Petty Jr. said. “From the time we came in until he left, we were roommates. Me, Alex, Herb and Galin. We were all roommates. We all got really close. I know it is going to be kinda fun with him on the court again.
“But it is what it is. We can be friends after the game but, at that point, we can’t be friends then.”
— Alabama’s depth of talent has been a weapon all year, with the aforementioned four double-digit scorers and eight players logging at least 15 minutes per contest. Maryland, on the other hand, rode all five of its starters for at least 33 minutes against UConn and only got one point from the bench (a Smith free throw in the middle of the second half). With the short turnaround and a talented opponent, the Terps might need a big night from forward Jairus Hamilton or, yes, a breakout revenge game from Smith.
— Maryland also probably won’t be able to get away with surrendering 22 offensive rebounds again. That’s how many UConn pulled down against the Terps, whose previous season high was 14 offensive boards allowed. Somehow, the Huskies only turned those extra chances into 11 points, which allowed Maryland to hang onto its lead. But Alabama, which ranks 64th nationally with a 31.7 percent offensive rebound rate, likely won’t bail the Terps out in the same way.
“They send four guys to the boards like they haven’t eaten in a week going to get dinner,” Turgeon said. “They come crashing hard. They’re athletic. It’s a great challenge for us.”
— The opening round of this year’s NCAA Tournament was littered with upsets, but this portion of the bracket has been upended more than any other. With three double-digit seeds reaching the round of 32, one of No. 2-seed Alabama, No. 10-seed Maryland, No. 11-seed UCLA and No. 14-seed Abilene Christian is advancing to the Elite Eight. The Crimson Tide, obviously, are the heavy favorites to do so. But should Maryland pull off an upset, it will actually be favored in the next round. And that might be the most stunning twist in a turbulent season.
Photo Credit: 2021 NCAA Photos