On Saturday, February 23, 2002, Ernest Shelton made a fantastic pass under duress and found Antoine Pettway for a game-winning lay-up that gave the 5th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide a share of the SEC Championship (which the team would win outright a week later), as the home crowd stormed the court in Coleman Coliseum. As outdated and ancient as the Coliseum feels now in 2020, if you listen carefully, you can still hear the echoes of legendary times of the past, when Alabama was considered second only to the Kentucky Wildcats on the hard-court.
For many not familiar with the history of Tide Hoops, the idea of Alabama basketball being considered a top-tier program in the conference sounds laughable. After nearly two decades of mediocrity, it’s hard to blame them. But this program has been, and is, so much more than what has been on display for the past 15 years. When the Tide celebrated its championship on the court that Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa, it was Alabama’s seventh regular season SEC title. That put the Tide in a tie with Tennessee for the 3rd-most in the conference, only one spot behind LSU with eight. Alabama was also (and still remains) second in the conference in SEC Tournament titles with six.
To this day, Alabama remains near the top of all the all-time rankings in the SEC. LSU and Tennessee have increased their regular season championships to eleven and eight, respectively, but Alabama is still tied for fourth with Florida. The Tide is second all time in SEC wins, one NCAA Tournament appearance (21 total) behind Florida, LSU, and Tennessee for a three-way tie for fourth in that category, and tied for fifth with Tennessee with eight Sweet Sixteen appearances.
The successes of yesteryear are why the Crimson Tide continue to have such a strong group of Tide Hoops fans. Trust me, it would have been way easier for most of us to hang up the sneakers a long time ago and join the Gumps as football-only fans. The fan-base has certainly dwindled over the years - Alabama fans are still mostly of the fair-weather variety when it comes to sports other than football - but there is still a strong contingent of dedicated fans that are starved for a return to the top of the conference.
I’m happy to say now, after a couple of different false alarms, that ‘Bama Basketball is back.
Enter Nate Oats
I’ll be completely honest: when Greg Byrne announced Nate Oats’ hiring just over a year ago in April 2019, I was a bit hesitant. Mid-major coaching hires have not worked out well at large, has-been, power conference programs in recent seasons. But after doing some due diligence, I was sold. Byrne clearly knows what he is doing, and Alabama is very fortunate to have him leading the Athletic Department.
Oats is the real deal. He brought an exciting, fun brand of basketball to Tuscaloosa this past season, and, despite a very limited roster, it was easy to see exactly what he wants this program to look like under his watch. It would take some time, but Oats was going to get Alabama back to playing electrifying and successful ball again.
Despite the craziness that has been the 2020 calendar year, Oats has completely transformed the roster in only a few months. After the most recent recruiting coup, convincing John Petty to return for his senior year, Alabama’s 2020-2021 squad is now set, and folks, it’s a doozy:
- Former McDonald’s All American and five-star, PG Jahvon Quinerly
- Knock-down shooters in Petty and Jaden Shackelford who combined to average 29.5 PPG on 46.2%/44.0%/67.4% and 41.3%/35.7%/76.8% shooting, respectively, last season
- Senior and elite glue-guy with incredible length who does everything from rebound, handle the rock, and apply elite defense in Herb Jones
- Do-it-all big and top available grad-transfer in America, Jordan Bruner, who can knock down jumpers and rebounds at an elite clip
- Potential future NBA first-rounders in true freshmen Josh Primo and Alex Tchikou. Primo is a long wing with guard skills; Tchikou is a seven-footer with the ability to run the floor and shoot
- Two guys who tore up their JUCO competition in Keon Ellis and James Rojas. Ellis is a walking bucket with a ton of athleticism; Rojas is a stretch big who can handle the ball and has been in the system for a year
- Senior with a big frame and ability to become a pick-and-pop star in Alex Reese
- A trio of young freshmen who project to be long-time contributors for the Tide in Juwan Gary, Keon Ambrose, and Darius Miles
This is the most talented, deepest roster that Alabama basketball has seen since the 2005 squad that ended up winning 24 games and was awarded a 5-seed in the tournament. Mark Gottfried put a couple of really talented starting fives together after that team, but the Tide always lacked depth and was an injury away (which never failed to arise, pour one out for Chuck Davis and Ronald Steele) from not having many options. Not to mention the lack of development.
There are numerous guys on this team that have the potential to be playing in the NBA in the near future. With an expected starting five of Quinerly, Shack, Petty, Herb, and Bruner, Oats will be able to look over to his bench and see half of those potential NBA guys sitting in the cut, waiting for their shot.
The difference between the roster now and a year ago at this time really is night-and-day. With Nate Oats bringing a high-level of intensity and excitement to the court, with actual sets and looks that his uptempo schemes play to, this group is going to be a ton of fun to watch play. And I do mean watch play, because I surely wouldn’t want to be playing against them. Tide Hoops fans have been burned on buying the hype of new players before, but even if only half of the newcomers end up panning out, that would give Alabama a solid rotation with a number of talented players.
Climbing back to the top of the league in the SEC won’t be as easy as it would have been most of the 2010s, Alabama already squandered that opportunity. But with Nate Oats recruiting as aggressively as he coaches up the team, it’s simply a matter of time before the Tide become a main-stay at the top of the conference standings again. With the team that Oats has assembled for the upcoming season, it is looking like that time will be sooner, rather than later.