Welcome To Iron Bowl Basketball In Birmingham, And Houston Feels Surrounded By Gumps

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - The state of Alabama is not really known for basketball. But maybe it should be.

There may not be a better NCAA Tournament first and second round site than right here.

Alabama and Houston, the top two overall seeds in the nation, are here in football town, home of the greatest college football rivalry called the Iron Bowl. That's between Alabama and Auburn played at this neutral site in Legion Field here for those two every year from 1948-88 along with 1990-92, '94, '96 and '98.


It usually is a hard, physical, hate-filled game, and that's just in the stands. This is why the nickname works. But that's not where the name came from. Back in the day, Birmingham was among the nation's leaders in iron and steel production.

Bama, Auburn Better Combo In Basketball Than Football Now

In present day, Alabama and Auburn are actually better in basketball than in football.

No. 1 overall seed Alabama (29-5) was ranked No. 1 in the nation by the Associated Press poll on Monday. It traveled just 57 miles northeast from Tuscaloosa to get here. Alabama football finished a lowly No. 5 last season and hasn't won it all since the 2020 season.

Alabama basketball is the most popular pick by the nation's millions of brackets to win the national championship at the Final Four in Houston on April 3. The Crimson Tide is the top seed in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament.


Houston (31-3) was previously No. 1 in the A.P. poll for several weeks. It is the No. 1 seed from the Midwest Region. The Cougars are the No. 2 overall seed and the No. 1 team in the nation by NET - NCAA Evaluation Tool. Houston was 7-2 against the top level Quad 1 opponents and 8-0 against Quad 2.

Could It Be Alabama and Houston In Houston?

Alabama and Houston will not play here. They can only meet in the national championship game, and Houston will be the home team there. Alabama and Auburn will also not play here. But their fans can yell at one another. No wonder, Alabama now has an armed bodyguard for Brandon Miller amid possible death threats.

Also here is No. 9 seed Auburn (20-12), which drove 110 miles northwest. The Tigers were just in the Final Four in 2019. They have been significantly better than Auburn's football team in recent years under coach Bruce Pearl. Auburn has not won more than six games in a football season since 2019.

Alabama And Auburn Will Fill Legacy Arena

Because of the local flavor and two trending sports at Alabama and Auburn, look for the 17,654-seat Legacy Arena in downtown Birmingham to be at or near capacity multiple times on Thursday and Saturday. Legacy used to be the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center. Birmingham has hosted 10 NCAA Tournaments from 1982 through 2008. That is more than any SEC city other than those that hosted Final Fours - New Orleans and Atlanta.

Auburn beat Alabama in a memorable SEC Tournament final in 1985 right here.

And perhaps the greatest SEC Tournament in history was in Birmingham in 1992 when LSU coach Dale Brown went after Tennessee forward Carlus Groves for a rough foul on Shaquille O'Neal.

NCAA Tournament Openers On Thursday In Birmingham

Here are the pairing for Thursday's games in Birmingham:

-No. 8 seed Maryland (21-12) vs. No. 9 West Virginia (19-14), 12:15 p.m., CBS.

-No. 1 Alabama (29-5) vs. No. 16 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (24-10), 2:45 p.m., CBS. (Texas A&M-CC beat Southeast Missouri State, 75-71, Tuesday in a play-in game.

-No. 8 seed Iowa (19-13) vs. No. 9 seed Auburn (20-12), 6:50 p.m., TNT.

-No. 1 seed Houston (31-3) vs. No. 16 seed Northern Kentucky (22-12), 9:20 p.m., TNT.

Here is the complete television lineup for Thursday and Friday first round action around the country.

"It's going to feel like a home game," Auburn senior forward Jaylin Williams said Wednesday. "On Selection Sunday, I just knew once we were selected to play at Birmingham, all the students were going to be looking for tickets. It's going to help a lot. Only a two-hour drive."

Pearl particularly enjoyed the team's drive over on Interstate 280 after his previous NCAA trips. Those were in California, Utah and Kansas.

"I will tell you, driving to Birmingham on 280 was never so much fun as with a police escort," he said Wednesday. "I am telling you. I mean, it was awesome. We went through every single red light and I tell you, we got here in about an hour and a half. Everybody knows what a ride that can be."

Auburn May Need The Home Cooking Against Iowa

This was great timing for Pearl because this is clearly not one of his better Auburn teams. It has slumped lately to 3-7. And Iowa will be a difficult game. Auburn will need its Jungle, which is its nickname for home crowds.

"When it's a close game, our fans are going to show up deep," Auburn senior guard Allen Flanigan said. "I mean, The Jungle, the fans, they travel. They travel well. It's going to feel like it's in the Jungle night in and night out."

It's going to feel like football, only better.

Alabama has won seven SEC championships in football since 2012, but it lost last year to Georgia. And Auburn has not won an SEC title since 2013. In basketball, Alabama and Auburn have split four SEC regular season titles 2-2 since 2018.

"Obviously, the numbers speak for themselves," Pearl said. "Auburn and Alabama have represented and been a factor in the growth of the SEC in basketball. As far as how our fan base in Birmingham, will it remind them of the Iron Bowl and the festivities around it? I'm sure it will just add to the history and to the rivalry."

Auburn May Get To Host A No. 1 Seed In Its Backyard

Meanwhile, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson might not know what the Iron Bowl is and doesn't want to know. Everywhere he looks in Birmingham, he sees Gumps either in crimson and white or orange and navy blue.

"Who's the 8 and 9 in our bracket? Birmingham, right," he said on Sunday night after the bracket announcement. "So, Auburn gets to play in Birmingham?"

If Auburn gets by Iowa and Houston beats Northern Kentucky, Auburn will host Houston on a Saturday in Birmingham - seven miles from the Iron Bowl at Legion Field.

"Maybe," Sampson mused, "we should have been a 9 seed."

Welcome to Alabama.

Written by
Guilbeau joined OutKick as an SEC columnist in September of 2021 after covering LSU and the Saints for 17 years at USA TODAY Louisiana. He has been a national columnist/feature writer since the summer of 2022, covering college football, basketball and baseball with some NFL, NBA, MLB, TV and Movies and general assignment, including hot dog taste tests. A New Orleans native and Mizzou graduate, he has consistently won Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) and Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) awards since covering Alabama and Auburn at the Mobile Press-Register (1993-98) and LSU and the Saints at the Baton Rouge Advocate (1998-2004). In 2021, Guilbeau won an FWAA 1st for a game feature, placed in APSE Beat Writing, Breaking News and Explanatory, and won Beat Writer of the Year from the Louisiana Sports Writers Association (LSWA). He won an FWAA columnist 1st in 2017 and was FWAA's top overall winner in 2016 with 1st in game story, 2nd in columns, and features honorable mention. Guilbeau completed a book in 2022 about LSU's five-time national champion coach - "Everything Matters In Baseball: The Skip Bertman Story" - that is available at www.acadianhouse.com, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble outlets. He lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, the former Michelle Millhollon of Thibodaux who previously covered politics for the Baton Rouge Advocate and is a communications director.