Houston and Alabama face off from the same arena
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – When the Houston Cougars made it to the locker room at halftime in their second round game of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, their shoulders weren’t the only ones slumping. So did their national championship hopes.
On Friday night, they saw Purdue, a No. 1 seed, eliminated by Fairleigh Dickinson. Earlier Saturday, the title dreams of another No. 1 faded away, as Arkansas rallied to oust defending champion Kansas.
And here are the Cougars, trailing by 10 points on Saturday ahead of feisty Auburn, which had a raucous home state crowd behind them. After watching their defense split, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson almost put his feet up at halftime and told his team — especially two of their best players, Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead — to to understand.
“Sometimes it’s not always about fussing and swearing and yelling and shouting,” Sampson said. “I didn’t yell or yell. I just said, “If we play our defense, we’ll come back in this game.”
And that’s what the Cougars did, putting a hold on Auburn in the second half and running away in the Round of 16.
Their victory, and Alabama’s, which followed here – a 73-51 slog over Maryland – presented a rare opportunity for the tournament’s top two remaining seeds to look forward to each other, if they go on to win, to meet in two weeks at the Final Four in Houston, where the Cougars could finally enjoy something approaching home-court advantage.
Alabama and Houston don’t know each other, having played at the start of this season and last (Alabama won both games). But teams earned more data points simply by keeping their eyes and ears open this weekend. They played and practiced on the same pitch, answered reporters’ questions on the same stages, and dressed and showered in locker rooms just steps from each other.
A big part of men’s basketball tournaments is about head to head, getting wins by any means possible and shooting at the right time. The transfer gate, lure of endorsement deals and an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the coronavirus pandemic have somewhat evened the playing field – yielding to more runs by weak teams. seeds like Oral Roberts and St. Peter’s, but also producing more teams that have a real chance of winning it all.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said of Alabama and Houston is that they played well enough to move on and have a chance to improve – an opportunity that will not be given to Purdue or Kansas.
UCLA, miffed at not receiving a No. 1 seed, also felt lucky after surviving Northwestern and injuries to two starters, Adem Bona and David Singleton. It’s unclear how much they’ll be able to contribute in a game against Texas Christian or Gonzaga on Thursday.
It’s shaping up to be the type of wide-open tournament many thought possible. It’s only the second time since 2004 that only two No. 1 seeds have survived the first weekend. Princeton, a No. 15 seed, is through to the round of 16 and definitely looks like it was no accident. The Tigers will be joined by another Jersey miracle worker, Fairleigh Dickinson, or Florida Atlantic. It seems like everyone has a chance to move on.
Arkansas in the Final Four? Gonzaga? Texas? Tennessee? Indiana? Marquette? Who says no?
“It doesn’t really matter where you’re seeded,” said Houston guard Tramon Mark, who had 26 points on Saturday and carried the Cougars past Auburn in the second half, which Sasser and Shead spent mostly on the bench with four fouls. “It’s just important if you’re ready to play and play hard. Anyone can be beaten in this tournament.
Doesn’t seem to hurt if you’re from New Jersey.
After St. Peter’s run to the Eastern Regional Finals last year as the 15th seed, Princeton is one win (over Baylor or Creighton) from doing the same. And so does Fairleigh Dickinson, if she becomes the first 16th seed to advance to weekend two.
Jahvon Quinerly, Alabama’s astute point guard from Jersey City, NJ, shrugged when asked about Houston. But when asked about the state of basketball in his home country, his eyes lit up as if a pork roll had been placed in front of him.
“Man, that’s a good question,” said Quinerly, who often wears a “Basketball Meets Jersey” t-shirt. He noted that he grew up not far from St. Peter’s and FDU, and that one of his former teammates at Hudson Catholic High School, Daniel Rodriguez, plays for FDU.
“Jersey is just different in March,” he added.
Quinerly has had a quixotic journey since leaving Hudson Catholic. He pulled out of Arizona after documents in an FBI college basketball corruption investigation suggested he took a $15,000 bribe from an assistant coach. He signed with Villanova, but left after a year where he struggled to play in its demanding system. He tore a knee ligament in Alabama’s first-round loss to Notre Dame last season and for a moment thought his college career was over.
Quinerly was Alabama’s best player on Saturday night with 22 effective points, 3 steals and 2 assists – which pained Maryland coach Kevin Willard, who, while coaching at Seton Hall, had offered to Quinerly a scholarship in ninth grade.
Willard knew Saturday that his team had a tough job to play in Alabama at home away from home, so he hoped Auburn could upset Houston and that his fans would be so pissed off that they would stick around to root against their own. rival, the Crimson Tide, in a nightcap.
The enemy of his enemy, Willard hoped, would be his team’s friend.
But what if Auburn didn’t win?
“Then at 9:40 at night, knowing Auburn fans, they probably go to the bar,” Willard said Friday.
In the end, Maryland was lonelier than they had hoped, as Auburn fans left Legacy Arena after their team faded. And although the Terrapins had a promising start, they were cooked once center Julian Reese caught three quick fouls in the first half.
Maryland, which had lost its last nine road games, trailed 28-23 at halftime, but Alabama slowly and inexorably slipped away. Willard said the foul issue disrupted his team’s game plan.
“We were going to hammer it inside, hammer it inside,” he said. “That’s what we did for the last two months of the season.”
It was a reasonable strategy. One way to beat Alabama is to attack center Charles Bediako, a sniper blocker but a work in progress as a post defender. Willard thought if his team could play with Reese it could slow the pace, create some good shots and have a chance.
There may be other people left in the tournament who can do it, Willard observed. One of them shared the same building on Saturday night.