Maryland fans were hoping for one final home game in the NIT, but they needed Stanford to beat top-seeded Alabama to make it happen. Unfortunately, neither obliged: behind 16 points from Levi Randolph, the Crimson Tide comfortably topped Stanford 66-54 in Saturday's matchup.
And so instead of one last chance to play in College Park, the Terps and Tide will meet in Tuscaloosa, playing for the right to head to the NIT semi-finals in Madison Square Garden. The game time between the two is already set: it'll tip at 7:30 on Tuesday, a relatively quick turnaround for 'Bama, and be broadcast on ESPN.
Between the road game environment and the quality of the opposition, there's little doubt that Alabama will provide Maryland's toughest test of the postseason thus far. The Tide were one of the first teams out of the NCAA Tournament, going 12-6 in (a relatively weak, to be fair) SEC, notching wins over Tennessee, Kentucky, and Villanova in the regular season. (Of course, they don't have any wins as high-quality as Duke or even N.C. State, and lost to Cincinnati, Dayton, Mercer, Tulane, Auburn, and LSU, so how their resumé is supposedly stronger than Maryland's I have no idea. But hey, I digress.)
Alabama does, though, have some scary similarities to the Denver team that just gave the Terps fits. No, thankfully, they don't run the Princeton, but just like Denver they consistently use a four-guard set and milk every possession. Their starting lineup consists of four guards - running 6-0, 6-3, 6-5, and 6-6 - and then a center, 7-0 project Moussa Gueye, who usually only plays about 15 minutes and is often subbed for 6-8 sophomore (and 265-pound tank) Nick Jacobs.
Maryland was given a lot of trouble by Denver with a similar look, but there are two key differences this time: first, there's actually someone for Alex Len to guard when Gueye is in the game, and even when Jacobs is as well, so they'll not need to resort to that "five guard" look that won it for them against the Pioneers. More importantly, Denver was a well-oiled offensive machine, one of the more efficient offenses in the country and with great shooting performance. Alabama? Yeah, not so much. The Tide are intensely mediocre in every offensive aspect, 206th nationally in raw efficiency and below-average in eFG%, FT rate, TO rate, and virtually any other offensive metric you could think of. Some teams know they're small and turn it into an advantage for themselves; Alabama has certainly failed there.
The Tide, though, are a great defensive unit, one of the best in the country. They force plenty of turnovers and are above average in eFG%, with an aggressive man look that limits easy opportunities. Maryland will obviously look to counter that with Alex Len in the middle, forcing double-teams and building the offense through that, because Alabama certainly can't match up with him one-on-one. That should open up space for Dez Wells and Nick Faust, and make execution easier. (The Terps, remember, have shown great offensive strides themselves in recent weeks.) A clever opposing coach would eschew playing with Gueye at all, start Jacobs and spell him with 6-8 swingman Devonta Pollard, thus forcing Len to become a defensive liability and taken off the floor, turning it into an even matchup with the Terps. I don't think Grant is a very clever coach, though, or his players may not be effective enough to make Maryland pay for leaving Len in the game defensively; we'll see how he approaches it.
Like most games, the Terps will have a massive advantage in quality height and a massive advantage in depth (the Tide only roll eight deep). They'll be tested by Alabama's really quite good halfcourt defense, but the game for them will be in their ability to push the tempo to bypass 'Bama's strength (their halfcourt D), ability to control the glass as much as they should, and turn the ball over as little as possible, forcing the Tide to execute in the halfcourt themselves.
There'll be another challenge, though: going on the road. Maryland hasn't won a true road game against a half-decent opponent all year, or indeed even in Mark Turgeon's tenure in College Park at all. We keep talking about the NIT as a chance to gauge progress; this trip to Tuscaloosa represents perhaps the biggest milestone yet.