BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — When the Houston Cougars trudged to the locker room at halftime of their second-round game in the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament, their shoulders weren’t the only things sagging. So were their national championship hopes.
On Friday night, they watched as Purdue, a No. 1 seed, was taken down by Fairleigh Dickinson. Earlier Saturday, another No. 1’s title dreams went kaput, as Arkansas rallied to oust Kansas, the reigning champion.
And here the Cougars were, trailing by 10 points on Saturday to feisty Auburn, which had a raucous home-state crowd behind it. After watching his defense get carved up, Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson all but put his feet up at halftime and told his team — especially two of his best players, Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead — to figure it out.
“Sometimes it’s not always about fussing and cussing, hollering and yelling,” Sampson said. “I didn’t holler or yell. I just said, ‘If we will play our defense, we will get back in this game.’”
And so the Cougars did, putting a vice grip on Auburn in the second half and running away to the round of 16.
Their victory, and Alabama’s, which followed here — a 73-51 slog over Maryland — made for a rare opportunity for the top two seeds left in the tournament to eye each other before they, if they continue to win, reunite in two weeks at the Final Four in Houston, where the Cougars might finally enjoy something approximating a home-court advantage.
Alabama and Houston are not unfamiliar with each other, having played early this season and last (Alabama won both games). But the teams gained more data points simply by keeping their eyes and ears open this weekend. They played and practiced on the same court, answered questions from news reporters on the same stages, and dressed and showered in locker rooms just a few paces down the hall from each other.
So much of men’s tournament basketball is about matchups, grinding out victories by whatever means possible and taking your shot when it comes. The transfer portal, the lure of endorsement deals and an additional year of eligibility the N.C.A.A. granted because of the coronavirus pandemic have somewhat leveled the playing field — yielding to more runs by low-seeded teams like Oral Roberts and St. Peter’s but also producing more teams that have a real shot to win it all.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Alabama and Houston is that they played well enough to move on and that they have a chance to get better — an opportunity that will not be afforded to Purdue or Kansas.
U.C.L.A., miffed that it wasn’t awarded a No. 1 seed, was feeling similarly fortunate after surviving Northwestern and injuries to two starters, Adem Bona and David Singleton. It is unclear how much they will be able to contribute in a game against Gonzaga on Thursday.
It is shaping up to be the type of wide-open tournament that many thought was possible. This is just the second time since 2004 that only two No. 1 seeds have survived the first weekend. Princeton, a No. 15 seed, is into the round of 16 and looking very much like it wasn’t an accident. The Tigers will be joined there by Florida Atlantic, which took out the biggest underdog left in Fairleigh Dickinson on Sunday night. It seems like everybody has a puncher’s chance of moving on.
Arkansas to the Final Four? Gonzaga? Texas? Tennessee? Who says no?
“It doesn’t really matter your seed,” said Houston guard Tramon Mark, who had 26 points Saturday and carried the Cougars past Auburn in the second half, which Sasser and Shead spent mostly on the bench with four fouls. “It just matters if you’re ready to play and play hard. Anybody can be beat in this tournament.”
It doesn’t seem to hurt if you’re from New Jersey.
After a run by St. Peter’s to the East regional final last year as a 15th seed, Princeton is one victory against Creighton from doing the same.
Jahvon Quinerly, Alabama’s crafty point guard from Jersey City, N.J., shrugged at a question about Houston. But when he was queried about the state of basketball in his home state, his eyes lit up like a pork roll had been placed in front of him.
“Man, that’s a good question,” said Quinerly, who often wears a “Basketball Needs New Jersey” T-shirt. He noted that he grew up not far from St. Peter’s and F.D.U., and that one of his former teammates at Hudson Catholic High School, Daniel Rodriguez, plays for F.D.U.
“Jersey’s just different in March,” he added.
Quinerly has had a quixotic journey since leaving Hudson Catholic. He decommited from Arizona after documents in an F.B.I. college basketball corruption probe suggested he took a $15,000 bribe from an assistant coach. He signed with Villanova, but left after a year when he struggled to play in its exacting system. He tore a knee ligament in Alabama’s first-round loss to Notre Dame last season, and thought at least for a moment that his college career was over.
Quinerly was Alabama’s best player on Saturday night with an efficient 22 points, 3 steals and 2 assists — which pained Maryland Coach Kevin Willard, who while coaching at Seton Hall had offered Quinerly a scholarship in the ninth grade.
Willard knew on Saturday that his team had a difficult task playing Alabama at its home away from home, so he was hoping that Auburn might be able to upset Houston and its fans would be so riled up they’d stick around to root against their own rival, the Crimson Tide, in a second-round nightcap.
The enemy of his enemy, Willard hoped, would be his team’s friend.
But if Auburn didn’t win?
“Then at 9:40 at night, knowing Auburn fans, they’re probably going to the bar,” Willard said on Friday.
As it turned out, Maryland was more on its own than it had hoped, as Auburn fans skulked out of Legacy Arena after their team wilted. And though the Terrapins had a promising start, they were cooked once center Julian Reese picked up three quick fouls in the first half.
Maryland, which had lost its last nine road games, trailed, 28-23, at the half, but Alabama slowly and inexorably pulled away. Willard said the foul trouble had disrupted his team’s game plan.
“We were going to pound it inside, pound it inside,” he said. “That’s what we have been doing for the last two months of the season.”
It was a reasonable strategy. One way to beat Alabama is to attack center Charles Bediako, an elite shot blocker but a work in progress as a post defender. Willard thought if his team could play through Reese, it could slow the pace, create good shots and have a chance.
There may be others remaining in the tournament who can do that, Willard observed. One of them shared the same building Saturday night.