Photo courtesy of Alabama athletics
Alabama head coach Nate Oats has taken the Crimson Tide to new heights.
Both an SEC regular-season and Tournament championship later, along with a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a Sweet 16 appearance, Alabama basketball is back on the map.
“You can make the argument we’re one of the best, if not the best, Alabama basketball teams in history,” Oats said following his team’s 88-78 overtime defeat to No. 11 seed UCLA in Sunday’s Sweet 16 match-up. “I mean, won the SEC regular season, the tournament. There’s all kinds of records that were taking place.”
It was the Crimson Tide’s first appearance in the Sweet 16 since 2004, and the SEC championship was the school’s first since 1991.
Senior guard John Petty Jr. gave all the credit to his head coach for all he’s done for Alabama in just two seasons so far.
“He came in, put in a game plan, put in a system that fits the players that we had, and he just let us loose,” Petty praised. “He let us be us, he let us do what we know we could do, and he never — not one time — told us not to.”
Alabama had five straight winning seasons when Oats took over, but just one NCAA Tournament appearance over that stretch. During those five seasons, the Crimson Tide went 8-10 in SEC play four times and never better than 10-8. This season, Alabama was 16-2 in conference play.
“He always built our confidence,” Petty continued. “He was just a perfect role model as a coach, perfect coach that we needed to come in and change this program around.”
As he presumably exits Alabama, the Huntsville native said he wants to be remembered as a “winner.”
“That’s all I wanted to do when I got here. No matter what it took, what I had to do, I just wanted to win,” Petty said. “I wanted to make this school, make this season special. That’s exactly why I came back, and that’s exactly what we did.”
“Best Team I’ve Coached”
The second-year head coach continued to rave about his guys.
“Best team I’ve ever coached,” he claimed. “I had some tough, hard-nosed (players). I love my Buffalo teams, but this team was tough, hard-nosed, with a lot of talent. Fifth in the country, that’s pretty good.”
Petty shared those thoughts.
“This is probably by far one of the closest teams that I’ve been on outside of basketball,” he said. “We were always together, we were always bonding, we were just so close together. So I feel like that translated on the court. But I feel like mostly what I’m going to remember most is just the bond we shared, just all the memories that we had, and just how hard we fought for each other.”
This team has certainly caught Oats’ attention, as it’s the furthest the former Buffalo head coach has ever taken a team in the NCAA Tournament. That’s saying something; the Bulls qualified for “The Big Dance” three out of four years under Oats’ guidance, twice advancing to the round of 32.
The Watertown, Wisc. native says he’ll remember this season as “the team that changed the entire culture of Alabama basketball”.
“Expectation levels are drastically different,” Oats said. “Recruiting is different. People want to come here and play for Alabama basketball. People think about Alabama basketball way different (now).”
A Program-Changing Season
Whether fans want to admit it or not, Alabama is no longer just a football powerhouse when it comes to revenue sports. Alabama’s softball and gymnastics programs contend for national championships. It may not be long before the men’s basketball program does, too.
The hoops program down in Tuscaloosa is now here to stay, and while it may be just one year, the double-barrel SEC titles, a 16-2 record in league play, the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the Sweet 16 appearance speaks for itself. Few would argue that this team didn’t have Final Four potential.
The combination of Jaden Shackelford (14 points per game), Jahvon Quinery (12.9 points per game), Petty (12.6 points per game), and Herbert Jones (11.2 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game) were the core four that made this run happen. Oats believes the Crimson Tide will be back next season.
“We’ve got some really big-time recruits coming in,” Oats pointed out. “The future of Alabama basketball is in a great spot. I would hope — as a coach — it’s going to motivate me.
“We’ll do better. I thought we made drastic improvements from year one to year two,” Oats continued. “We need to make more improvements from year two to year three…..They’ll get better and use it for motivation, I’m sure, as the coaching staff will.”
“I definitely expect them to be here in this spot or further next year,” he said.
“We Made History”
The history that Alabama basketball made this year won’t soon be forgotten in Tuscaloosa. The foundation has been set for ‘Bama to become a perennial SEC and Final Four contender year in and year out.
“We made history, and we did great things for this school,” Petty said.
“I told our guys, I’m going to be talking about this team for the next 30 years I’m coaching,” Oats reflected. “This is an unbelievable team with a bunch of high-character kids that stepped up to the challenge and changed the entire narrative of Alabama basketball.”