BIRMINGHAM, Ala, (AP) — Alabama has the No. 1 overall NCAA Tournament seed, one of the best players in college basketball and likely a couple of games in its own backyard.
For a Crimson Tide team that’s been an easy target for opposing fans over the past two months, playing less than an hour from campus is no small matter. It means most of the taunts will be replaced by cheers at Legacy Arena, especially for All-America freshman Brandon Miller. Hostile crowds have targeted Miller with taunts since his presence at the scene of a fatal shooting was made public.
It will be an overwhelmingly crimson and white crowd at Thursday’s game against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, (24-10) which advanced with a 75-71 win over Southeast Missouri State in a play-in game for its first NCAA Tournament win.
“This isn’t technically a home game, but I sure hope that Legacy is packed out like a home game,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “And it’s been nice to play in front of our own fans and some friendly fans in Coleman. I hope we get a similar treatment here at Legacy.”
On the court, Alabama (29-5) is among the favorites to win the national title, behind only Houston according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Off the court, the Tide are much less popular these days outside of their own giddy fan base. Case in point: The security guard accompanying Miller at the arena on Wednesday after some of the angry messages Oats said have been sent his way.
“If you guys saw some of what I’ve seen sent his way, I think you would understand why that’s the case,” Oats said. “I don’t want to get into all that. The entire situation, as you know, is just a heartbreaking situation on all accounts.”
Police tied both he and freshman point guard Jaden Bradley to the scene of a shooting that led to capital murder charges against then-Tide teammate Darius Miles and another man. Though neither have been accused of any crime or been held out of a game, police say Miles had left his gun in the back of Miller’s vehicle that night.
Through it all, Alabama has won both the Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament titles with Miller leading the way.
The Tide returned to the No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press poll for the second time this season. The first was followed swiftly by a loss at Tennessee.
“We have been No. 1 during the season,” Miller said. “I feel like before we weren’t as prepared, but I feel like now we are more prepared for anything that comes our way.”
The Islanders came in Thursday savoring the “shock the world” possibilities — if not the challenge of defending MIller.
“Everybody in the country and most of the world will know who the heck we are if we beat them,” Corpus Christi coach Steve Lutz said. “This is what you dream about when you’re a little kid. This is what you dream about when you’re a coach. You’ve got to enjoy every moment.”
The Islanders have had to overcome the left knee injury to Terrion Murdix, the Southland Conference defensive player of the year. He was hurt in the league championship game.
In other South region games:
No. 9 West Virginia vs. N o. 8 Maryland at Birmingham, Ala., 12:15 p.m. (CBS)
A couple of coaches’ kids will be facing each other when West Virginia meets Maryland.
Bob Huggins of the Mountaineers played high school hoops for his father, Charles. The Terrapins are guided by Kevin Willard, whose father Ralph was a head coach at Holy Cross, Pittsburgh and Western Kentucky.
“My mother wanted me to be a doctor,” Huggins quipped. “I found out how many classes you had to take to do that, and (decided) there’s got to be a better way out than this.”
Willard joked that he was the product of “child abuse.”
“My first memory of life is helping my dad re-varnish St. Dominic’s High School basketball gym,” he said. “I was out there pouring the polyurethane while he was sweeping it.”
Huggins will be making his 24th appearance at the NCAA Tournament. The Mountaineers (19-14) got in despite a 7-11 mark in the brutal Big 12.
Maryland (21-11) returned to the NCAAs in Willard’s first season after the departure of Mark Turgeon.
No. 2 Arizona vs . No. 15 Princeton at Sacramento, California, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Princeton coach Mitch Henderson was a player on the Tigers team that famously upset defending champion UCLA in the tournament 27 years ago. Now he’s looking to coach the team to a win over a bigger program — literally.
If the 15th-seeded Tigers are going to have any chance against No. 2 seed Arizona, they will need to find a way to neutralize 7-foot center Oumar Ballo and 6-11 forward Azuolas Tubelis.
“Size, like as in Ballo and Tubelis, we haven’t seen anything like that,” Henderson said. “Those guys are enormous and they’re fast. Again, we can practice with guys that have broomsticks attached to their hands. This is going to be new for us in some ways.”
No. 7 Missouri vs. No. 10 Utah State, at Sacramento, California 1:40 p.m. (TNT)
Missouri guards Nick Honor and Tre Gomillion don’t need anyone to warn them about the quality of play in the mid-major conferences before the Tigers take on Utah State of the Mountain West.
Honor began his college career in the Atlantic 10 at Fordham and Gomillion transferred to Missouri from Cleveland State of the Horizon League.
“We don’t get caught up too much in level when it comes to basketball,” Honor said. “Even though we’re at the high major level, we still have the mid-major chip on our shoulder because at the end of the day we’re still underrated and slept on around the country. We don’t get caught up in that too much. Utah State is a good team.”
The Aggies feel the schedule they played in the Mountain West, which got four teams into the tournament, was a good test for what they will see on Thursday. Now they hope to get their first tournament win since 2001.
No. 13 Furman vs. No. 4 Virginia at Orlando, Fla., 12:40 p.m. (TRU).
Virginia is returning to the site of one of its worst NCAA Tournament games in history. No, not the first-round stunner to 16th-seeded Maryland-Baltimore County in 2018. The Cavaliers scored just 39 points in a 26-point drubbing to Florida at the Amway Center in 2017.
It remains the lowest-scoring game in the program’s tournament history.
“Not a lot has changed in this tournament,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said. “You’d better be ready.”
The fourth-seeded Cavaliers (25-7) expect a better showing against No. 13 seed Furman (27-7) on Thursday. The Paladins have won six in row and 12 of 13, culminating with winning the Southern Conference Tournament more than a week ago.
Furman has a dynamic duo of super seniors – guard Mike Bothwell and forward Jalen Slawson – who could pose problems for Bennett’s stout pack-line defense.
No. 12 Charleston vs. No. 5 San Diego State at Orlando, Fla., 3:10 p.m. (TRU).
If College of Charleston’s players can match coach Pat Kelsey’s energy and intensity, they should be in good shape in their first-round matchup against fifth-seeded San Diego State (27-6) on Thursday.
The 47-year-old Kelsey is known for hanging on rims at practice to get his guys’ attention. But he divulged a little secret Wednesday.
“People think I go up with my vertical leap,” he said. “I actually pull myself up on the net and grab that bad boy.”
Players nonetheless raved about Kelsey swinging from the rim like he’s in a dunk contest.
“Coach thinks he’s 7 feet,” guard Dalton Bolon said. “He’ll be walking around with his chest out and stuff like that. … He’s got the most energy I’ve ever seen on every day.”
The 12th-seeded Cougars (31-3) have won 10 in a row under Kelsey, culminating with the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament title. Their last and only NCAA Tournament victory came in 1997.
Now they get a San Diego State team that landed in Orlando after midnight thanks to its charter flight getting delayed because of restricted air space regarding President Joe Biden and Air Force One.
The Aztecs have lost four straight NCAA Tournament games, including the last two years as the higher seed.
AP Sports Writers Paul Newberry, Josh Dubow and Mark Long contributed to this report.
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