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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Maryland coach Kevin Willard was either buttering up Alabama, or taking a subtle shot at the Crimson Tide before their NCAA Tournament second round game late Saturday night at Legacy Arena.
No. 8 seed Maryland (22-12) and No. 1 seed Alabama (30-5) tip off at 9:40 p.m. on TBS with the winner advancing to the round of 16 next week in Louisville.
“The funny thing about this roster is, I think this is the most talented roster I’ve seen in college basketball since the 1993-94 Kentucky team,” Willard said Friday.
Kentucky coach Rick Pitino coached that team with Walter McCarthy, Tony Delk and Travis Ford. Willard coached under Pitino later with the Boston Celtics and at Louisville.
Alabama As Talented As Rick Pitino’s Best Kentucky Teams
“With Antoine Walker, Walter McCarthy, this team reminds me of that team with the length, athleticism, how unselfish they play,” Willard said.
That Kentucky team, interestingly, lost as a favored No. 3 seed in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to No. 6 seed Marquette, 75-63. It finished 27-7 and second in the SEC at 12-4. This Alabama team is two seeds better than that Kentucky team. This Maryland team is two seeds worse than that Marquette team.
“If you look at Alabama’s roster, I’m more worried about that than I am the crowd,” Willard said. His team will be very much visitor tonight as the Alabama campus is 50 miles away.
Willard needs to look at Kentucky’s 1993-94 roster again, however. Antoine Walker was not on it. He was a freshman on the 1994-95 team. Willard may just have his seasons confused. The next year in 1994-95, the Wildcats were better and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, finishing 28-5. They won the SEC at 14-2. The Wildcats missed the Final Four after a 74-61 loss to North Carolina in Birmingham.
Kentucky and Pitino won the national championship the next season in 1996.
Alabama Has Depth And Athleticism
Whichever year Willard was talking about, he is right about the rosters. This Alabama team and Kentucky’s mid-1990s share depth and athleticism. And Alabama coach Nate Oats likes to play fast like Pitino.
“What I’m really impressed with is how unselfish they are,” he said. “They really pass the basketball. It’s not a complicated offense, but it’s a good offense because they’re unselfish.”
Freshman guard/forward Brandon Miller leads the Tide in scoring and rebounding with 19.1 points and 8.2 rebounds along with 2.1 assists a game. Junior guard Mark Sears is scoring 12.6 a game with 2.6 assists. Noah Clowney, a 6-foot-10 freshman forward, is scoring 10.1 a game with 7.9 rebounds.
Alabama has seven players with 25 or more made 3-pointers. Miller leads the way with 103 on 39 percent shooting, followed by Sears with 69 on 35 percent shooting. Quinerly has hit 41 at 34 percent. The Tide can also play defense. Alabama is No. 3 in the nation in 3-pointer defense at 28 percent allowed. This may be because Alabama is ninth in the nation in 3-pointers made with 10 a game, and opponents hurry too much to keep up.
“They just have that pace,” Maryland senior guard Don Carey said.
“They’re going to have that extra step,” Maryland senior forward Patrick Emilien said.
“They’re a deep team. They shoot a lot of threes,” Carey said. “They’ve been playing at that pace all year long really.”
Crimson Tide Made Up For Brandon Miller’s Scoreless Game
Even when Alabama did not have Miller at this best Thursday against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi because of a groin injury, the offense still clicked with five scoring in double figures. Miller is expected to start and play tonight, though he may not be at 100 percent.
“The issue with Brandon is he has such good range,” Willard said. “And he’s so talented off the dribble. We’re going to try to switch up some guys on him. Again, you can’t focus on him. He didn’t score the other night, and they scored 96 points. Like, I haven’t seen that, and that’s why, I think, this team reminds me of that ’93-’94 team. They had guys, too, that if one guy didn’t play well, they had two All-Americans coming off the bench.”
Willard knows a little bit about second round upsets. He played for his dad Ralph Willard at Western Kentucky in the 1992-93 season when the 7 seed Hilltoppers beat No. 2 seed Seton Hall, 72-68, in the second round in Orlando, Florida. A reporter asked Willard if he learned anything from his father entering that game.
“No, he took us to Universal Studios and just kind of kept it relaxed,” he said. “Same thing with us.”
The Terrapins relaxed at Top Golf Friday night.
“Our guys understand Alabama is really good,” Willard said. “They’re very talented. So we’re really just letting them enjoy the experience.”
Willard wished for an Auburn win over No. 1 seed Houston in the earlier game in Birmingham Saturday.
“I’m hoping Auburn wins because then their fans will stick around,” he said. “I’m afraid, if Auburn loses, then at 9:40 at night, knowing Auburn fans, they’re probably going to the bar.”