What was expected to be essentially a home game for the Alabama basketball team in Saturday’s second-round matchup in the NCAA Tournament against Maryland at Legacy Arena in Birmingham could prove to have more Maryland “fans” than expected.
Auburn takes on Houston in the game before the matchup between Alabama and Maryland so some Auburn fans could stick around, but who will they choose to cheer for? In an interview earlier in the week on “The Next Round,” Auburn legend Charles Barkley said that Alabama and Auburn fans “better be cheering for each other.”
On the other hand, Maryland head coach Kevin Willard had a different message for the Auburn fans in his press conference Friday afternoon.
“Stick around,” Willard said. “Should be a good game. And it's 9:40 [ET] at night. What else is there to do in Birmingham? It's like come watch a great game and chill out. I think the NCAA sells beer now. I'm not sure. Do they?”
He added, “Yeah, it's a great place to be. It's going to be a good game. They've got a great game. Why not?”
Willard also added that he would have preferred the Auburn game to be after and not before to help maximize the potential Auburn fans cheering against the Crimson Tide.
“I would love for the Auburn game to be second,” he stated. “I'm hoping Auburn wins because then their fans will stick around. I'm afraid, if Auburn loses, then at 9:40 [ET] at night, knowing Auburn fans, they're probably going to the bar.”
Coming from the Big 10 Conference, Maryland is no stranger to playing in hostile environments having already picked up big conference wins against other ranked teams like Purdue, Ohio State, and Indiana earlier in the season. While ideally for Maryland they would like a more neutral environment, but if Auburn fans end up ‘going to the bar’, fifth-year guard Don Carey and Maryland will be prepared.
“I've been hearing that Auburn fans are going to be in the building kind of rooting for us, but if they're rooting for us, we appreciate that,” Carey said. “If not, we look at it like a road game. It's just about the guys that are on the bench, managers, the whole staff. As long as we come together, I think that's enough alone, but we'll appreciate Auburn if they root for us as well.”
Alabama had no offensive issues in their first-round matchup, scoring 96 points while Brandon Miller was held scoreless, proving they can be explosive without him, but the Crimson Tide would prefer Miller to get back to his normal form against Maryland. Miller, the SEC’s and Alabama’s leading scorer averaging 19 points a game, has been nursing a groin injury that he sustained last weekend in the SEC Tournament.
While Brandon Miller is no guarantee to play against Maryland, Nate Oats is confident that Miller will give it a go and if not that Alabama would be limited but has the depth to be able to manage the situation.
“He's obviously been our most talented, best player all year,” Oats said. “If he's not able to go at 100 percent, he's probably still a pretty good player at 75, 80 percent. Hopefully, we can get him playing better than he did yesterday.”
“He told me in the second half, ‘If you don't need to put me back in, don't put me back in. It's hurting.’ So I didn't. But I think he's smart enough to know if he can go or not and help us. If he can't, the good thing about our team is we've got a lot of depth. Nimari Burnett played great yesterday. He's not 6-9, but he's got a 6-9 wingspan. He's been great on defense. He did an unbelievable job, as we talked about, in Houston. He did a great job on Sasser when we won at Houston.”
“Rylan Griffen has been playing great for us. We do have long, athletic wings, not as long as Brandon. We can also go a little smaller. When we beat Auburn at our place, we're down 17 with 9:30 to go in that game. We went with Jahvon Quinerly, Mark Sears and Jaden Bradley lineup. Kind of spread them all out, went with all three guards and rode with it through that in overtime.”
“So we've got different options. Pray we don't have to go to all those. I hope he's good enough and healthy enough to play. Based on how much work him and Clarke are putting in, I think he will. But it definitely would limit us. Shoot, he might be the best player in the country. It would be nice if we had him.”
Alabama’s second-round game of the NCAA Tournament against Maryland will tip off at 8:40 p.m. CT Saturday, March 18, at Legacy Arena in Birmingham.
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