NCAA tournament: Murder, grief, indifference and a title favorite

"This season is stained in the blood of Jamea Harris and it’s not ever washing out.”

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 12: Alabama Crimson Tide forward Brandon Miller (24) cuts down the net after winning the SEC Mens Basketball Tournament championship game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Texas A&M Aggies on March 12, 2023 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN. (Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Brandon Miller (24) cuts down the net after winning the SEC men's championship game. (Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If there was any doubt that the Alabama basketball program, notably its involvement in the alleged murder of 23-year-old single mother Jamea Harris, was going to be the overwhelming story that hung over the NCAA men's basketball tournament, it was dashed on Saturday.

That's when two self-described Alabama fans proudly strutted into a game clad in Crimson Tide T-shirts with a stark message printed across the back:

“Killin’ our way through the SEC in ‘23.”

The two men, who refused to identify themselves to local media that asked, are, undoubtedly, callous idiots.

But at this point, they are Alabama’s callous idiots. And more problematic for a school that would like to avoid any and all mention of the case, who knows how many more of them are out there ready to lash out and, in turn, create fresh news cycles of negativity.

The NCAA would prefer the focus of its beloved March Madness to fall on any of the other 67 participants. The generally feel-good event annually captures America’s imagination and viewership.

That’s unlikely as long as Alabama is winning — and as the No. 1 overall seed and likely title contender that could be awhile. The Tide’s perceived win-at-all-cost pursuit of its first-ever men's hoop national title adds an element of true crime, tragedy, outrage, misplaced priorities, gun crimes and debates over accountability and discipline to the tourney.

Harris was killed on Jan. 15, when she was struck by gun fire in a dispute that included Crimson Tide players in front of a row of student bars just steps from campus.

One Alabama player, Darius Miles, was charged Friday with capital murder in relation to the incident. Two others, star freshmen Brandon Miller and Jaden Bradley, were also on the scene. Miller, according to police testimony, drove the murder weapon to Miles after Miles texted him and requested his gun be brought to where he was involved in a budding dispute with Harris’ boyfriend.

Neither Miller nor Bradley have been charged and police have labeled them cooperating witnesses. Miller's own windshield was struck twice by gun fire that night.

Alabama cited the lack of legal charges as a reason to keep Miller and Bradley in the starting lineup even though the school did not know (and still doesn’t know) the full extent of their involvement. It wasn’t until a preliminary hearing last month that it learned Miller ferried the weapon to the scene.

The lack of criminal charges surprised many, but Alabama’s criminal conspiracy and gun laws are more forgiving than most states.

As for the lack of even modest school discipline, “Brandon didn’t break any school policy or team policy,” head coach Nate Oats declared.

That has led to taunts from rival fans (chants of “Brandon Killer” and “Lock Him Up”), critical media coverage and enough shame that Stuart Bell, Alabama’s president and the person supposedly in charge, has hidden out and offered no public explanation on the situation.

Meanwhile, Harris’ family has repeatedly ripped the school and the program, noting no one has bothered to reach out or offer anything more than “thoughts and prayers” for Harris’ 5-year-old son, Kaine.

“He brought a gun to where a person was murdered and he did nothing wrong?” Harris’ stepfather, Kelvin Heard, told “Brandon Miller is knee deep in this situation no matter how they want to spin this.”

As an avalanche of negative attention hit the program, it was almost predictable that fans would see T-shirts mocking the murder as a misbegotten defense mechanism. It was just one more pathetic flair up Alabama assuredly didn’t want but can't prevent.

The story is well known at this point by serious college basketball fans. March Madness is a different stage, however. It plays to a much larger national base.

There are millions who will just learn about it, and more mainstream media to explain it. This is a story that works for national morning shows, cable news programs and lengthy print stories. Even how CBS and TNT cover it — or ignore it — during broadcasts will be a story.

Alabama has struggled to find footing. It has tried to distance itself from Miles by declaring him removed from the team, but since he’s been in jail, what else would he be?

Oats initially declared Miller was simply in the “wrong spot at the wrong time,” which made things worse. He later backtracked, explaining he didn’t know better because neither Miller nor his attorney told Alabama about Miles' text messages or the transporting of the murder weapon.

All of which begs the question about what else haven’t they told?

“After what this coach said, for us as a family, this season is stained in the blood of Jamea Harris and it’s not ever washing out,” Heard said.

Alabama opens the tournament Thursday in Birmingham, Harris’ hometown.

College basketball is no stranger to controversy. There have always been supposed heroes and villains. Virtually all of that, however, stemmed from NCAA violations that are rarely anything more than exchanges of money.

This is an alleged murder.

This is a grieving, outspoken family. This is one Alabama player potentially facing death row, while two others continue to play. This is a coach who struggles with public relations and a school president who seems inclined to pretend nothing happened and hope no one mentions him.

And these are some random "fans" acting out in embarrassing fashion with no one sure what they might do next?

That’s the backdrop to not just the No. 1 team in this tournament, but the sport itself.