When Anthony Grant agreed to terms to become the new head basketball coach of the University of Alabama on March 27th, 2009, Crimson Tide fans were hopeful that the stoic, young coach who had previously enjoyed a bunch of success at VCU would quickly get the Tide Hoops program back on track. The Mark Gottfried era had just finished flaming out, as the Alabama program went from SEC Champions and Elite Eight participants in the early-to-mid 2000s, to an under-performing squad that couldn’t even make the NCAA Tournament in the latter part of the decade. History was on Grant’s side. After all, Alabama had enjoyed great success in both the 1970s under C.M. Newton and the 1980s under Wimp Sanderson. The two legends of Alabama basketball had propelled the Crimson Tide program to a top five status in the SEC. After a bit of a lull under David Hobbs in the 1990s, Gottfried had managed to take the Tide deeper than anyone had before in March.
Clearly, this was a program that, although always in the shadow of the behemoth that is the football team, had become as successful as any in the conference south of Lexington, Kentucky on the hardwood. As #SECBASKETBALLFEVER began to emerge in the early 2010s, it became obvious that any team worth its salt would be able to take over the conference. Grant’s teams showed flashes at times (2011-2013), but a complete lack of identity on offense, a bunch of failed experiments in the post, and an inability to knock down free throws and take care of lesser opponents prevented Alabama from being able to take advantage of the weakest period of hoops in SEC history.
Then, the conference made a concerted effort to increase the quality of play on the basketball court. A number of schools made huge hires that would end up paying large dividends (Bruce Pearl at Auburn, Rick Barnes at Tennessee, Frank Martin at South Carolina, etc). With the writing on the wall, Alabama made the decision to part ways with Grant, and replaced him with former NBA coach, Avery Johnson. Avery immediately rejuvenated the program with his infectious personality and ability to recruit blue-chips players, such as Collin Sexton. Unfortunately, as the rest of the conference, including the aforementioned Tigers and Vols, began to make huge strides on the court, Alabama was stuck in the mud. Despite the increase in talent on the roster, Avery’s teams suffered from a lot of the same issues that Grant’s teams did.
And just like that, the entire decade was lost. Two (short) NCAA Tournament appearances, four winning seasons in conference play, and a couple of SEC Tournament Semifinal berths were all Alabama was able to accomplish in the 2010s, making it the least successful decade since the ‘60s. With hated rivals rising to heights never before reached, and the overall product of the SEC increasing its quality by leaps and bounds, Alabama had to make a home-run hire to flip the script and redirect the course of the program.
Enter Nate Oats: an old-school, blue-collar coach who subscribes to the most modern approaches to the game. Oats quickly turned Buffalo, his former school, into one of the premier mid-major programs in college basketball by installing a fast-paced, hard-nosed style of play. Organized chaos. Disciplined frenzy. Whatever you want to call it, it has worked extremely well for Oats in the past.
And if there were any questions about how long it would take to get that style of play installed at the Capstone, consider them answered. The Tide dropped 90+ points in each of its two scrimmages the past few weeks in the lead-up to the season opener next Tuesday, November 5th, against the Penn Quakers. This lines-up with the reports from practice all off-season that implied that Alabama’s players had never gone through a process so rigorous and so focused. This team is going to play hard, they are going to push the tempo, and they are going to be well-coached.
With an offense predicated on spacing and stretching the floor by taking shots from the perimeter, Alabama basketball will have an identity on offense that has been sorely lacking since Sanderson last donned the plaid jacket in the early ‘90s. The last few coaches appeared to simply roll the ball out on the court and let their players try to create in isolation. Ball screen pick-and-rolls were about the only set play that appeared with any consistency. Oats will have his guys running constantly, especially without the basketball in their hands. This will lead to a lot more open looks than Tide fans have been accustomed to over the years, which will hopefully lead to a lot better, and more fun, outcomes.
Nothing in sports is ever guaranteed, and Alabama fans have been duped before, but Nate Oats looks like the answer that Tide basketball has desperately been searching for a long time. The attitude that his players display reflect greatly on his character, and the intensity and focus that his teams always play with bode well for the Tide’s future.
After all, that’s what this is about. Alabama is at a crossroads with its basketball program. With rising rivals and new powers emerging left and right, the Crimson Tide has to flip the script this decade and return to its rightful place near the top of the SEC.