When the NCAA Tournament bracket was revealed on March 14, Maryland men’s basketball players noticed one thing in particular right off the bat: A second round matchup with Alabama was looming.
Forward Galin Smith spent his first three seasons of college basketball with the Crimson Tide, and if the Terrapins could fight their way past Connecticut, he would get to face his former team.
“I think he called some of his guys like, ‘Yeah, it’s up. We’re gonna be there,’” Maryland guard Darryl Morsell said. “So he told them just make sure they there, because, you know, as you see in the tournament anybody can win.”
Both the Terps and Crimson Tide advanced past their first round matchups and are now set to square off Monday night, with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line.
“Galin’s excited [for the] opportunity to play against his former teammates. I’m hoping Galin plays well,” Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said Sunday. “I know Galin will be fired up. But he also has a ton of respect for those guys and he loves his old teammates.”
Alabama head coach Nate Oats said that he and Smith sat down for a “man to man” talk after the end of the 2019-20 season about how the big man fit into the team’s new system. Oats, who took the job prior to that year, was implementing a faster-paced, small-ball offense with a heavy-emphasis on three-point shooting, similar to what’s become prevalent in the NBA.
“I thought he was trying hard to change his game into what our system needed out of our big and, you know, we kind of talked about it,” Oats said. “He was getting better at it all, but I thought he would play more minutes in a system that kind of valued traditional bigs more.”
Forward Jordan Bruner had committed to Crimson Tide as a grad transfer from Yale on April 10. He averaged 10.9 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.7 blocks per game for the Bulldogs and had expectations to start at the five spot for Oats.
After weighing his decisions, Smith entered the portal as a graduate transfer on April 29 before committing to Turgeon and the Terps on May 12. Through three years at Alabama, Smith averaged 3.2 points and 2.2 rebounds per game. He played 13.1 minutes per game with seven starts in Oats’s first year at the helm.
The Clinton, Mississippi native, still kept in touch with players and coaches within the Alabama program, and he had a chance to reunite with them in person before March Madness got underway in Indianapolis.
Prior to the start of games, all of the teams participating in the tournament took turns getting their pictures taken on a rooftop in front of a giant bracket plastered on the J.W. Marriott building. The Crimson Tide happened to be finishing up their turn as the Terps ascended onto the top of the building.
“Man, they just, they love Galin,” Turgeon said. “It was really cool to see. They were yelling his name and “G!” and all this, and he went over and he’s giving them all a hug.”
Smith was roommates with guard John Petty Jr. and forwards Herb Jones and Alex Reese back in Tuscaloosa. Petty said in a media availability Sunday that he considered Smith one of his best friends on the team and Turgeon also added that the pair is “extremely close.”
Petty and Jones, both named First Team All-SEC selections, have been especially integral to Alabama’s success and are expected to play a big role Monday night.
The duo combined for 30 points, 13 rebounds, four steals, three assists and two blocks in the Crimson Tide’s 68-55 win over Iona on Saturday. Reese plays a smaller role, but has still been a key contributor to the team, including a six point, four rebound and one steal performance in the first round victory.
“It’s gonna be kind of fun being on the court with him again,” Petty said. “We can be friends after the game, but at that point, we can’t be friends then.”
Smith’s familiarity with Oats’ system and some of the Crimson Tide’s best players could prove a vital asset for Maryland as it takes on a hefty challenge against the SEC regular season and tournament champions.
The forward came off the bench in the Terps’ first round victory over the Huskies, only playing seven minutes and contributing one rebound and one point at the charity stripe. Though both teams will be playing small-ball lineups Monday, he’s sure to see time on the court to go head-to-head with his former teammates, looking to take advantage of the chance to make a statement.
“I know he’s really excited,” Maryland guard Aaron Wiggins said. “But our entire team is really excited, not only to play, but for him — you know, try and play for him and go out there and do what we can do best. And I mean, we’re excited and ready to compete.”