With the Crimson Tide sitting at No. 1 in this week’s AP Basketball Top 25 poll — and the bandwagon near-full to bursting — now is as good a time as any to explain to newcomers (and those who were too embarrassed to ask), what exactly they’re seeing on the floor in Alabama games.
It doesn’t look like other teams, for sure. But you may not know why. Sit back, padawan, we’ll sherpa you through these dangerous peaks and valleys. While it is “revolutionary” in some sense, at the end of the day, it is a system that borrows from a lot of successful offenses and is driven by the defense.
The Basic Tenets
It’s been called lots of things: the five-out offense, five-out dribble-drive, the Nate Oats transition offense, 5-out motion, and other things. We’ll stick with the basics and call it the five-out (5O). Think of the entire scheme as a syllogism, with each part relying upon the others to form a cohesive “argument” — If A then B, if B then C, if C then D, then arriving at the conclusion: points and wins.
- The first step of is that chain, “A” is the defense.
That relies on good positioning, effort, foundational play strong rebounding, closing out on your man, harassing the shooter etc. And Alabama defends very well. It is 3rd-6th in most defensive efficiency matrices. But, more granularly, it is tied with Houston for No. 1 where it matters most: field goal efficiency defense. It is very hard to get open looks against the team when they are playing soundly. Because it is remarkably aggressive and fouls a great deal, the Tide do give up more points than most “defensive teams.” But make no mistake, this team is first and foremost built on that defense.
- That brings us to the second part of the “chain” — Transition.
Upon a change of possession, particularly a miss, the offense focuses on getting up the court with speed looking for an easy entry to the rim, a defender out of position, a trailing man falling off his shooter, etc. If the looks are there in transition, Alabama will absolutely take the shot, exploiting any weaknesses they spot in the the opponent’s transition defense.
- That brings us to the third part of the “chain” — Analytics.
First, the highest percentage play in basketball is around the rim: dunks, layups, put backs. It is there where Alabama focuses its initial attack. And why not: it’s a high-reward, low-risk play that converts into points, puts opponents into foul trouble, and sets up for many and-one plays — which are obviously easier to convert than three from the field.
And that’s related to another analytical point: You’re always better trading three for two. A team shooting 50% from the field simply is not going to beat one that shoots 35-36% from the perimeter on high volume. Thus, Tide shooters are given the green light to take them whenever they see them. As a result, Alabama are 4th this year in 3PA (28 per game).
The reason that kind of 3PA shooting looks so alien, is because among Power 5 programs, it is. That kind of volume shooting is usually eschewed in favor of superior athleticism at this level. It is a strategy you see employed in the midmajors and low-majors. But only seven Power 5 teams are in the Top 10% of 3PA (alongside Mizzou, Baylor, UConn, Villanova, Cincinnati). Nate Oats time at UB is definitely reflected here.
- The fourth step of the “chain” — Dribble drive penetration and motion
If the Tide can’t convert in transition, then it sets up its offense: to the outside it looks like a Chinese fire drill of frenetic energy and extra passes played at such a pace that there’s simply no way for most teams to prepare for it in advance.
This is the “five-out” offense, and is exactly what the name implies.
Unlike traditional offenses where a center may man the post, and a forward is camping out near the key, all five of Alabama’s players begin by working the perimeter. And from there, they drive into the lane off of screens, cuts, etc. If points are to be had in the paint, they take them. If not, the team makes the extra pass and the ball works around the horn always trying to find the open look. In particular, Nate Oats loves dribble-drive penetration to the interior to collapse the defense, and then kicking it out to the baseline (either to take the three or swing the ball to another open shooter).
Floor spacing, crisp passing, screens, cutting.
The downside to all the passing and putting the ball on the floor (rather than iso play or the two-man game), is that Alabama traditionally turns the ball over a bit more than you’d expect for an elite team.
- The next step of the chain — Tempo.
We’ve discussed here many times in the context of football that good teams create additional possessions for themselves. The same concept applies in basketball. To do that, Alabama plays at breakneck speed. It is the fastest team in the country, in fact, at just about 78 possessions per game. As with the frenzied passing, there’s simply no way for teams to approximate the speed at which Alabama plays, nor do they have the conditioning to do so (and it is also no secret why Alabama’s bench runs 10-deep. They are human after all).
Defense. Three-and-rim. Do it fast.
The greatest analytical plays in basketball reflect the Crimson Tide: creating extra possessions and maximizing the possessions you do have.
And it all starts with defense.
What does it look like?
Putting all of together at the major conference level has been entirely revolutionary. Though very little of it is new. Aspects of Alabama’s offense have appeared many times, in many incarnations.
Motion offenses aren’t new: Indiana leads the country in points out of motion. Mark Gottfried even ran a Motion Offense back in Alabama’s previous period of recent success (the three-out). Nor is 5-out play unique to Nate Oats. Half of the Ivy League runs one. Volume perimeter offense isn’t new either: Jay Wright had a 26-year career at Villanova with it. Even the drive-and-kick isn’t a Nate Oats innovation. The Oklahoma Sooners lead the Big 12 in scoring from kick/shoot.
But what is revolutionary is this analytical approach combined with tempo and talent: this is being done at the major level of hoops with blue chippers. Lots of threes, breakneck speed, five men cycling the perimeter and driving to the basket — but not with Ivy League guys, with 5-star lottery players.
You have seen this kind of basketball at times...but not in college. And that is because it most resembles the NBA.
You know where else you’ve seen it? Back in 2017, when the Villanova Wildcats ran Alabama off the floor in the NCAA Tournament. And it is from this offense, Jay Wright’s Four-and-Out, that Alabama borrows most heavily.
Thus, we say: Something borrowed; something blue — in this case both the borrowing and the blue belong to Villanova. Simply put: without Jay Wright’s four-out motion offense, this iteration of Alabama basketball does not exist.
Spot the similarities here:
Not coincidentally, Villanova also leans into analytics; also green-lights volume shooting; and also emphasizes defense.
The differences are in degree, but meaningful: Alabama plays at a much faster pace than Villanova ever dreamed of, and the Tide does not rely so heavily on dedicated post players for interior scoring. Everyone can shoot, everyone can get to the rim, and everyone is expected to defend and turn up court.
If you can call a style of basketball “northern,” it is. The approach taken by the Tide is used almost exclusively by programs in New England and the upper Midwest programs. Aside from Alabama, the lone P5 team south of the Mason-Dixon line with this kind of volume shooting is Baylor… and this is where we remind you that Scott Drew came from Valparaiso.
But it is not just a “northern” style of basketball, it is also one that often looks like the pros in the half-court, yet takes the approach of a midmajor. They play every possession with abandon, as though they are underdogs, and this is how they have to win.
Thus the imprimatur of geography and his midmajor coaching experience is writ large on both Nate Oats and the University of Alabama basketball program.
And the end result is a thing of absolute beauty:
We hope this has been helpful. It’s barely scratched the surface of how complex this scheme is, despite it looking like disorganized street ball to the incurious eye
(and Wimp Sanderson).
For far more of a deep dive into the Xs and Os, check these starter links out:
- Types of offenses and their efficiency
- Jay Wright’s four-and-out motion
- Nate Oats five-and-out scheme and specific plays
- Nate Oats motion and transition