March Madness is absolutely in full effect right now. It has been peak insanity this opening weekend, with underdogs and Cinderellas looking like the favorites and advancing into the deeper portions of the bracket. Oral Roberts, Oregon State, Syracuse, and Loyola-Chicago all clinched spots in the Sweet Sixteen yesterday, as they stole bids from some of the best college basketball had to offer this season, such as Illinois, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State. Clearly, the universe is making up for losing the tournament last year.
With that being said, nobody should feel gross about Alabama’s gritty win over 15th-seeded Iona on Saturday. It’s the NCAA Tournament - surviving and advancing is all that matters. In fact, the Tide overcoming a really poor shooting performance to make the plays necessary to win the game in the second half was quite encouraging. Iona was making some really tough shots for most of the game - Alabama certainly wasn’t giving them easy looks. The culture of Tide Hoops has truly changed, because that is a game that Alabama loses 9/10 times in the previous 15+ years.
Now, the Tide turns to its next opponent, the Maryland Terrapins (17-13, 9-11 Big Ten, NET: 35, Kenpom: 31), and I’ll be honest, things worked out beautifully for Alabama after the Tide’s game Saturday night. With UConn putting on its worst shooting performance of the season, and Texas turning the ball over on nearly a third of its possessions, both of the fellow Kenpom top-25 teams on the Tide’s side of the region (who both have great size and depth in the front-court, to boot) have been eliminated. Instead, Alabama’s path to the Elite Eight runs through nothing but double-digit seeds.
That’s not to discount Mark Turgeon’s Terps, but this is a much more favorable match-up for the Tide than the Huskies would’ve been, and match-ups really matter come March. The Terrapins are very similar to Alabama: they have very little size in the post, play through their guards on offense with 4-Out and 5-Out looks, and play aggressive, but sound, defense. It’s going to be a battle - every game is in March - but the Tide has a great opportunity to make the second weekend of the tournament for the first time since 2004.
POINT 6’5 Darryl Morsell (8.9 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.0 SPG)
GUARD 6’5 Eric Ayala (15.2 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.2 SPG)
GUARD 6’6 Aaron Wiggins (14.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.1 SPG)
WING 6’6 Hakim Hart (7.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.8 APG)
POST 6’7 Donta Scott (10.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.0 SPG)
Again, in a lot of ways, playing Maryland will be like looking into a mirror for Alabama. You could argue that they basically play four big guards and a wing, which is very similar to Alabama’s line-up when Juwan Gary is in at the five. Morsell is technically the point guard, and he does distribute the ball well (20.1% AST%), but the Terps offense is very much a communal experience. Ayala and Wiggins are the two high-volume scorers that really make things go for them (Ayala: 44.1%/34.4%/83.6% on 10.9 FGAs per game; Wiggins: 43.6%/34.2%/79.2% on 11.8 FGAs per game). All three of these guards are great off the dribble, but the Terrapins really become dangerous when any two of the three get the deep-ball going. They are also very good defenders with their size/quickness combos.
In the “front-court”, Hart and Scott can be match-up nightmares on both ends. Both can handle and shoot the ball on offense (Hart: 44.5%/33.3%/76.0%/; Scott: 49.8%/43.5%/67.1%), and their ability to guard multiple positions make it to where the Terps can switch on everything on defense. Pick and rolls and high ball screens aren’t going to be effective solutions for creating match-ups against them, with the exception of maybe Jahvon Quinerly.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’2 Reese Mona (0.4 PPG, 0.7 RPG)
GUARD 6’3 Aquan Smart (1.4 PPG, 1.0 RPG)
POST 6’8 Jarius Hamilton (6.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG)
POST 6’9 Galin Smith (3.7 PPG, 2.3 RPG)
POST 7’2 Chol Marial (1.6 PPG, 1.1 RPG)
The area that has really hurt the Terrapins all year, besides their lack of size, is their lack of production off of the bench. Mona, Smart, and Marial all average less than 10.0 MPG, and if you glance at their stats above, you’ll see why. Hamilton and Galin are really the only true players in a short, seven-man rotation, and we all know how limited of a player Galin is. I’m happy to see him contributing for a team that’s made it as far as the Tide has so far in the NCAA Tournament, but there is a reason he transferred away from Tuscaloosa. Hamilton can stretch the floor as a scorer (45.1%/42.9%/65.3%), but is a liability on defense and a poor rebounder (6.9% REB%).
Four Keys to Victory
- Control the Tempo. I’ve spent a lot of time explaining how these two teams are similar, but the one area where they are total opposites is in tempo. Maryland is slooooooow. 319th in the country, in fact. They are used to playing big, plodding Big Ten teams, where their small-ball line-up makes them an outlier. Alabama needs to dictate the pace of this game, because it is not something that a team can adequately prepare for in a couple of days like Maryland will have to. A fast start, both figuratively and literally, could put the Terps in a real bind with their heads spinning, trying to play catch-up. Additionally, with only seven guys in their main rotation, two of which are bigs who aren’t great on defense, the Tide could really wear out the Terps with the frenetic pace. If Maryland’s starters get a bit tired and start fouling, they are going to be in trouble.
- Get Petty and Company Going with Off-Ball Action. This goes hand-in-hand with controlling the tempo of the game. Maryland is very good defensively in the half-court. Their ability to switch on everything with their starting five makes it extremely difficult to get good looks. Pick and rolls and high ball screens don’t result in the match-ups that you want to get, and the length of their guards makes it very difficult to create space. Maryland is almost certainly going to be playing out on the perimeter, trying to chase the Tide off of the three-point line. So, Alabama needs to counter with tempo and good off-ball action. The main reason Oats likes to play at this pace is to prevent teams from being able to set their defense. But, when Maryland is able to do so, Alabama needs to counter in the half-court. If the Terps are playing far out like Iona did, the Tide needs to get plenty of off-ball movement going: back-door screens, baseline cuts on drives (like the Quinerly oop to Gary on Saturday), etc. Also, getting John Petty a couple of good looks early to reestablish some confidence would be huge, as his ability to knock down all of these three-point looks he gets takes Alabama’s offense to the elite level.
- Limit Wiggins and Ayala. As mentioned, these two really make things happen for Maryland. Morsell is technically the point guard, and Scott can be really dangerous as a stretch-five, but make no mistake, this offense begins and ends with Ayala and Wiggins. Maryland uses a lot of 4-Out and 5-Out looks to create space for them. I’d expect Alabama to have Petty and Herb on these two most of the game tonight, but the Terps will definitely run ball-screens all day to get them loose. The Tide can not let either one of them get hot.
- Rebounding. Second chance points could loom large tonight for Alabama. Maryland has good size across its rotation, but the Terps don’t rebound well due to their lack of true post players. UConn had 22(!) offensive rebounds the other night. Gary, Herb, and Petty could be major factors on the glass in this game. I’m not sure how much run Jordan Bruner will get tonight in this particular match-up, but when he’s out there, we need him hitting the glass, as well.
This should be a fun game. Both teams are capable of getting hot and really lighting up the scoreboard, but they are both actually much better on the defensive end. With the versatility that either team can utilize, it should make for some very interesting match-ups. With the upset-bug being spread around like COVID, Alabama absolutely has to bring its ‘A’-game tonight. However, if the Tide do, Maryland isn’t quite strong enough to keep pace, and Nate Oats will have Alabama advancing to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since that legendary 2004 run. Can the Tide take care of business?
The game tips-off at 7:45 PM CDT and will be televised on TNT. Alabama is currently a 6-point favorite.