Birmingham NCAA Tournament preview


Henry Sklar, Sports Editor

Grab your popcorn and nitroglycerin pills because the madness is back in the Magic City. 

For the first time since 2008, Birmingham will play host to the first and second rounds of the  NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. 

The Birmingham subregion will host teams competing in the South and Midwest regions, which includes two fan favorites. The first overall seed Alabama Crimson Tide and the no. 8 seeded Auburn Tigers will compete in the first-round (and potentially second-round) games at the BJCC this week.

Six other teams nationwide will join the two Alabama schools in Birmingham. Let’s break down the games.

#8 Maryland (21-12) vs. #9 West Virginia (19-14), Thursday, March 16th, 11:15 P.M., CBS.

An intriguing border rivalry opens up the round of 64 as Maryland draws West Virginia on the 8/9 line. 

Under former Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard, the Terrapins’ appearance in the big dance is all gravy for a group projected to finish 10th in the preseason Big Ten media poll. With senior point guard Jahmir Young averaging 16.1 PPG and the Terps three other double-digit scorers, Maryland ranks 35th in Ken Pom’s adjusted offensive efficiency, consistent with their 33rd-rated adjusted defensive efficiency. Maryland boasts an impressive 16-1 record at home. The same can not be said about their standing away from the XFINITY center, as they are 5-11 on the road and in neutral site games. 

Despite being closely seeded, West Virginia is the polar opposite of their opponents. Newly inducted hall of fame head coach of West Virginia Bob Huggins has been tenured in Morgantown since 2007. Huggins and the Mountaineer’s four leading scorers (all seniors) bring experience to the tournament. West Virginia’s high-powered offense ranks 15th in adjusted offensive efficiency, whereas the defensive efficiency ranks 52nd. Erik Stevenson is the engine for the Mountaineers; the senior guard has averaged 20.8 PPG over his last five games. 

The Pick: 

The tournament’s first game will be a fun matchup. Maryland has star power in Young, and West Virginia has the coaching experience in Huggins, which gives them a slim advantage. West Virginia wins a close one.

WVU Faces Maryland in NCAA Tournament Thursday
West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins. (WVU Athletics)

#1 Alabama (29-5) vs. #16 TAMU-CC (24-10) Thursday, March 16th, 1:45 P.M, CBS.

The number one team in the country has earned their right to play an hour away from their campus.

Amidst the controversy of the Darius Miles capital murder case, the dominance of Alabama basketball has remained tried and true. The Crimson Tide capped off a dream season with an SEC sweep, claiming the SEC regular season title and winning the tournament in Nashville. Freshman Brandon Miller jumps off the screen as a future NBA superstar, as he ranks as the top college player on the majority of NBA draft boards. The 6’9″ forward Miller is a phenomenal playmaker who can efficiently light it up from the 3-point line or take it to the basket and out will his opponent. Other strong players surround Miller; pick your poison between fellow first-year forward Noah Clowney or fifth-year guard Javon Quinerly. Ranking top 3 in most metrics and being the number one overall seed, this team can bring Alabama their first national championship in program history.

16-seed Texas A&M Corpus Christi defeated SEMO in the first four to earn a spot in Birmingham. The Islanders won the Southland conference for the second straight season, clinching their third-ever appearance in the big dance. TAMU-CC averages 80.4 PPG, ranking 17th in the nation. The head coach of TAMU-CC is Steve Lutz. 

The Pick: 

TAMU-CC will score the ball early, but Alabama’s depth and talent should help them pull away from the Islanders.

#8 Iowa (19-13) vs. #9 Auburn (20-12), Thursday, March 16th, 5:50 P.M., TNT.

Auburn couldn’t have been more fortunate to draw their game at the BJCC. 

The Tigers are one of many teams that struggle mightily away from home, showcased with a 2-8 record on the road and in neutral-site games. Luckily for head coach Bruce Pearl and Auburn, the Tigers only have to travel two and a half hours to Legacy Arena, where Pearl is 4-0 in his tenure at Auburn. Backtracking, Auburn cemented their berth into the tournament in the waning moments of the regular season with an overtime loss in Tuscaloosa and a decisive win over Tennessee. Center Johni Broome is the motor of the Tigers, as the Moorehead State transfer is one of the top bigs in the nation. Broome is a defensive ace who averages 2.2 blocks per game and only allows three field goals per game. Auburn’s path to success depends on their guard play, as when Wendell Green and KD Johnson are on, this team can compete with anybody.

Offense, Offense, and Offense is what Fran McCaffery and his Iowa Hawkeyes will bring to Birmingham. Iowa is ranked third in the nation in offensive efficiency, averaging 80.2 PPG, the seventh highest in the bracket. Five Hawkeye starters average at least 10 points, including John Wooden Award finalist Kris Murray averaging 20.4 PPG. Iowa’s powerhouse offense comes with significant drawbacks on defense, which isn’t a formula successful for March. Iowa is giving up 74.4 PPG, the second-highest out of any team in March Madness, giving up a 47.4% shooting percentage per game. 

The Pick: 

With Iowa’s defensive struggles, Auburn’s offensive improvement over the last few weeks, and the home-court advantage Auburn will presumptively have, give me Auburn in a high-scoring affair. 

#1 Houston (31-3) vs. #16 N. Kentucky (21-12), Thursday, March 16th, 8:20 P.M., TNT.

For the fifth straight season, Houston is dancing in a major way. The Cougars are a prototype for a potential champion; the roster is littered with lottery picks and veteran studs and Kevin Sampson has cemented himself as one of the top coaches in college basketball. The group ranks first in the majority of metrics. The concerns come with senior guard Marcus Sasser, not because of his play but because of the groin injury suffered in the American Athletic Conference tournament semi-finals. Sasser’s status is still unclear, and his loss would be a massive blow to the national championship hopefuls. 

Sixteen-seed Northern Kentucky will face the immense challenge of meeting the cougars. The Norse won the Horizon for the first time since 2020, clinching their 16th NCAA Tournament appearance in program history. TAMU-CC averages 68.2 PPG. The head coach of the Norse is Darrin Horn. 

The Pick: 

Houston should dominate the Norse here.

Senior guard Marcus Sasser is considered one of the best players in the country. (Houston Athletics)