BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The athletics director issued a statement at halftime. The most scrutinized 20-year-old in basketball couldn’t make a shot before eventually going to the bench to rest a sore groin. The walk-on nobody had heard of before Wednesday night threatened to sue the New York Times. And the coach is losing his mind on every dribble for two straight hours of a game he didn’t come close to losing.
In other words, it was just another day in Alabama basketball.
The Crimson Tide comfortably won its first NCAA Tournament game Thursday as the No. 1 overall seed, beating Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 96-75 and advancing to face No. 8 seed Maryland on Saturday.
Maybe Alabama can keep going on like this, dancing through the raindrops of controversy as questions mount and new allegations are lobbed at them weekly. In a strange way, it’s impressive how well the Crimson Tide has compartmentalized chaos off the court and been all business when the ball is tipped.
But can any team, even one as good as Alabama, survive 2½ more weeks of this without eventually paying the price?
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The latest dramatic turn came Wednesday night when the New York Times reported that Kai Spears, a freshman walk-on who has not appeared in a game this season, was also at the scene of a shootout along with three other Alabama players in the early hours of Jan. 15 that resulted in the killing of Jamea Harris, a 23-year-old mother.
One of those players, Darius Miles, has been charged with capital murder. But it wasn’t until weeks later that the incident drew national attention when testimony in a preliminary hearing revealed that freshman star Brandon Miller had transported the gun to the scene in his car after receiving a text from Miles asking him to bring it, and that Miller’s car had ended up with bullet holes in the windshield.
Alabama’s every movement has been a circus since then. Its decision not to discipline Miller in any way, deferring to the district attorney’s decision not to pursue criminal charges against him, or even investigate the activities of its own team has enraged people inside and outside college sports. The atmosphere around Alabama has been so intense, it has chosen to have armed security accompany Miller at all times. Even Thursday at Legacy Arena, there were five policemen standing near the Alabama bench.
Spears, who was not dressed in uniform, sat behind the bench along with the other walk-ons. Earlier Thursday, his father Christian Spears, who is the athletics director at Marshall, said the Times had demonstrated “irresponsible and demonstrably false reporting.” An attorney for the family said Kai Spears wasn’t in the car or in the area at the time of the shooting. And Greg Byrne, the Alabama athletics director, released a statement at halftime saying the Times report was not true.
It’s unclear how the Times ascertained that Spears was in the car with Miller aside from a reference to viewing the surveillance video of the incident. But the direct and strong denials from Alabama suggest that the school genuinely believes Spears wasn’t involved. It also probably serves the school’s interests at this point to pick a fight with the New York Times, given how a sense of victimization has been at the core of the school’s and its fan base’s response since the beginning.
But the Alabama ethos has also been rooted in this: Just plow through. Deflect questions, no matter how many come. Keep winning basketball games because they probably have the best team in the country.
At this point, it’s clear that the noise isn’t going to stop. The emotions around what Miller did or didn’t do are too raw. Alabama’s insistence on inaction is too cynical. The lapses in information are too big. And the threads for news outlets to pull are still being pursued.
Amidst all this, Alabama is trying to win its most important basketball games of the season. Thursday was a comfortable win against an overmatched opponent, but it was perhaps a preview of how complicated things might get.
Miller, whose play has been just as scintillating after his name became tied to this tragedy as it was before, insisted that the mental toll is not why he was held scoreless in 19 minutes, missing all five shots he attempted.
“Mentally, I feel like everybody is on their game,” Miller said before quickly responding “No” to a follow-up question about whether the off-court questions have started to weigh on him.
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Only Miller knows what was bothering him Tuesday. Alabama coach Nate Oats referenced a groin issue that has been bothering him since the SEC championship game. When asked if the injury accounted for why he didn’t return to the game after a rough stretch that included a couple missed shots and a turnover early in the second half, Miller said: “You can go with that. I feel like I was just there to support my team.”
Perhaps it’s as simple as Alabama didn’t need him this time. The Crimson Tide had too many long, athletic bodies to allow A&M-Corpus Christi an inch of breathing room.
But it was strange to see just how uncomfortable Miller looked. In warmups, he made almost everything, displaying the pure shooting stroke at 6-foot-9 that has lifted him among the top three prospects in this year’s NBA Draft. When the game started, though, Miller looked passive and had no impact on offense. For a player who failed to reach double-figures in scoring just once this season, it was an undeniably strange performance.
“It shows we’re deep and we have a lot of options and lots of talented players,” Oats said.
But after three weeks of nonstop disruption, weirdness and unflattering headlines that pop up every time Alabama takes the floor, exhaustion may turn out to be the one opponent they can’t account for.
It’s got to be draining to fight these battles, push back on critics and try to stick to a script. And with the NCAA Tournament now here, it’s only just beginning.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
Story Credit: usatoday.com