College basketball doesn’t have any superpowers. No team that is viewed as a Final Four lock. It does have one very fascinating March ingredient.
A team that fans of the sport will vehemently root against, and will follow intently.
This week, Alabama — and in particular projected top-five NBA draft pick Brandon Miller — became that team by how poorly it handled the superstar wing’s involvement in a murder that occurred on Jan. 16.
Last Tuesday, it was revealed through police testimony in court that the uber-talented, 6-foot-9 Miller was connected to the murder of Jamea Harris, who was visiting her boyfriend and cousin at the University of Alabama. Allegedly, Miller transported former teammate Darius Miles’ gun that police say was used in the killing and is a cooperating witness in the case. Miles had left the weapon in his car.
Then, coach Nate Oats put his foot in his mouth by saying “[we] can’t control everything everybody does outside of practice,” and Miller was “just in the wrong spot at the wrong time.” Oats later apologized for his “unfortunate remarks,” insisting he wasn’t trying to downplay the loss of a woman’s life. Miles, who was immediately kicked off the team, and Michael Lynn Davis have been charged with capital murder. Davis is alleged to have pulled the trigger.
Second-ranked Alabama played Miller the next night, and he exploded for 41 points and six 3-pointers in a come-from-behind win at South Carolina. Saturday, before an impressive victory at home over Arkansas, a walk-on mockingly patted Miller down in warm-ups, making light of a woman’s death. Classless behavior, even if it is something Alabama has done before its games all season. Oats told reporters it wouldn’t happen again, and he was unaware of it because he’s diagramming plays at that time. So, to summarize: The coach can’t control what his players do when they’re not on the court or be aware of what they do seconds before a game starts.
The video clip predictably went viral, adding to the vitriol for those who believe Miller should’ve been suspended or at least disciplined. I didn’t have an issue with Miller playing, since he clearly isn’t being charged in the case at this time. Miller’s attorney said he never touched the gun or saw it and wasn’t involved in getting it into the hands of Davis. But ask yourself this: If he was Alabama’s seventh man, would he still have a spot on the roster? Would he even still be enrolled in the school?
Either way, this last week made Alabama and Miller a must-watch the rest of the year. The Tide are clearly one of the best teams in the country, a front-runner to receive the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Miller is a fantastic prospect who would go No. 1 most years if not for the presence of what the scouting community believes are generational talents in Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson. He is averaging 19.7 points and eight rebounds while shooting 42.4 percent from 3-point range on 7.2 attempts.
The drama isn’t going away. Questions will linger. The hate will only increase. With the absence of a superteam, college basketball has a true villain. Alabama is the team everyone will want to lose.
In the wake of the aforementioned last week, questions have arisen about Miller’s future, and how this could impact his draft status. He was considered a consensus top-five pick before, and not much has changed, one scout, speaking anonymously, told The Post.
“A lot of people will do their research on him, grill him, etc., but he had a really good reputation coming into this,” the scout said. “[Saturday] was just immaturity and being tone-deaf. The situation is a bad look.”
Ultimately, unless something else comes out that is more damning of his involvement, he still is expected to be taken in the top five, or even in the top three. Performing so well over the last week under intense scrutiny can only help him.
“You’ve got to be better than your problems, and as of now he is,” the scout said.
Blind résumé: NET ranking of 47, 1-8 record in Quad 1 games, three Quad two losses. Is this an NCAA Tournament team, or even one that belongs close to the bubble? Of course not. But since the name of the team is North Carolina, the Tar Heels are somehow seen as needing just one or two more quality wins to make it after their home victory over sixth-ranked Virginia on Saturday night in Chapel Hill.
They now own two wins over projected at-large teams — Virginia and N.C. State — which is supposed to be one of the most important criteria for selection. The biggest factor working in North Carolina’s favor is its brand as a star-studded, yet underachieving team, that started the season ranked No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press poll after reaching the title game last year. It certainly isn’t its pedestrian résumé.
Game of the Week
No. 7 Arizona at No. 4 UCLA, Saturday, 10 p.m.
UCLA clinched the Pac-12 crown on Sunday, but a No. 1 seed in the West Region is still up in the air. The winner here could stake claim to it, especially if Arizona is able to complete a season sweep of the Bruins. Winning in Westwood would be quite a feat. UCLA hasn’t lost there this season, posting a perfect 15-0 mark.
A prediction of the top four seeds in the NCAA Tournament (listed in order):
1. Alabama, Kansas, Houston, UCLA
2. Purdue, Baylor, Texas, Arizona
3. Tennessee, Marquette, Kansas State, Gonzaga
4. Connecticut, Indiana, Gonzaga, Iowa State
Hofstra won its third CAA regular-season crown in five years and is the conference favorite to go dancing. Fordham, in third place in the Atlantic 10, has its most regular season wins (23) since the 1990-91 season. Iona has won nine straight games and has looked dominant in doing so, those victories coming by an average of 17.6 points per game as the Gaels have repeated as MAAC regular-season champs. St. John’s is again a mess, needing a Big East Tournament miracle, but the little guys in the area are up, all clearly capable of reaching the NCAA Tournament by winning their respective league tournaments. Maybe one of these schools can be this year’s March darling, like Saint Peter’s was a year ago.
Remember when Neptune was in over his head, that his hiring at Villanova was a mistake? Seems foolish now. The Brooklyn native has the Wildcats soaring entering March, looking like a potential bid-stealer at the Big East Tournament. They have won five of six games and can finish as high as sixth in the league. It took Neptune time in his first year at Villanova, after doing such a nice job at Fordham a season ago. Justin Moore’s absence until late January following a torn Achilles’ tendon obviously played a significant role in that, too. But the notion the job was too big for Neptune was laughable — did you think Jay Wright was going to hand the program over to someone who couldn’t handle it? — and he has proven over the last month his coaching chops, keeping this group together when all signs pointed towards a lost season.
The league will be well represented in the NCAA Tournament, with anywhere from five to seven teams. Don’t expect many of them to advance, though. The league doesn’t have any elite teams. Just look at No. 6 Virginia, the supposed best team in the conference losing by a combined 23 points this past week to Boston College and North Carolina. No. 13 Miami was beginning to emerge before blowing a 25-point lead to dreadful Florida State. N.C. State has recent losses to Syracuse and a whopping 25-point setback at home to on-the-bubble Clemson. Mediocre Duke has the highest NET ranking at 25. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the entire conference was wiped out the first weekend of the tournament.
The Pirates’ NCAA Tournament at-large hopes were all but extinguished with an ugly 22-point home loss to No. 16 Xavier on Friday night. Fading Seton Hall just doesn’t have enough talent without injured point guard Kadary Richmond, who is dealing with a back injury and missed the last game. Coach Shaheen Holloway’s team has dropped four of five and closes with Villanova at home followed by a trip to No. 20 Providence. The NIT, which I predicted in the preseason for this group, remains a likelihood for Seton Hall barring a magical run in the Big East Tournament.