When Nate Oats left the University of Buffalo to come to Tuscaloosa as the new head coach of the Alabama Men’s Basketball team, he said the only reason he left is because he believed he could build something special at Alabama. No one thought that it would he would have Alabama sitting at the top of the SEC in Year 2 and a projected 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. However the question remains in the eyes of many people across the country, how did he do it?
The Change in Culture
Nate Oats came into Tuscaloosa getting a team that just took a first round NIT loss to an inferior Norfolk State squad. The program was lacking the discipline and effort necessary to win in a conference that is continuously getting tougher every year. In Year 1 under Oats, Alabama had the 114th best defense in the NCAA, per Kenpom. However, there was still a visible rise in the effort and intensity displayed on the court. In Year 2, Alabama rose to the best defensive team in the nation according to Kenpom and currently sits at 2nd in defensive efficiency on Kenpom. Players began giving the effort required on both ends of the floor even in games in which they did not shoot the ball well. Not everything on defense is about effort though. Oats has Assistant coach Charlie Henry in charge of the defense and said that as soon as they could have meetings in the offseason they began working on defense, citing Virginia’s defense as one they studied on film. Alabama’s defensive rotations and closeouts on shooters have improved drastically compared to the prior year due to this increased focus on the defensive end of the floor. Another reason for this improvement is the fact that Alabama recruited guys in the offseason that can switch on screens and defend multiple positions. Joshua Primo, Jordan Bruner, Keon Ellis, and Juwan Gary coming back from injury has allowed Alabama to be able to defend more effectively by having guys that can switch and defend multiple positions comfortably. Oats almost wears the phrase “control what you can control” out to the team because when players don’t allow their offensive output to effect what they do in the effort column and on the defensive end then that is when a team starts becoming elite. Oats and staff came in and prioritized the value of effort and discipline and its paying dividends already.
Recruiting, Development, and Analytics
When Oats came to Alabama, the cupboard wasn’t bare. He had the talents of John Petty, Kira Lewis (for 1 season), and Herb Jones who is 1 of 2 players to be a top 10 semi finalist for Naismith National player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. The talent was there but it still needed to be developed properly to help take Alabama to the next level. Oats helped Kira Lewis go from a late 1st round projection to being drafted 13th overall to the New Orleans Pelicans in 1 season. He has developed Herb Jones into more of a two-way Forward rather than just a defensive specialist. This has resulted in Jones being named the SEC Player of the Year and SEC Defensive Player of the Year. He has helped John Petty become more than a catch and shoot specialist, bringing the ball up the floor and finishing around the rim better this year than ever before at Alabama as well as maximizing his potential on the defensive end. Jaden Shackelford came in and was an All-SEC Freshman and was named to the All-SEC Second team this season. He brought in Jahvon Quinerly, who never got much playing time at Villanova, and has him playing as one of the top 6th men in the SEC. Then in the 2020 offseason he managed to land coveted Grad transfer Jordan Bruner, 5 star guard Joshua Primo, one of the best JUCO players in the nation in Keon Ellis, and got a top 50 player to reclassify in Alex Tchikou, who hasn’t played a game for Alabama yet. A big question mark for Oats and staff when they came to Alabama was would they be able to recruit on a SEC level with the likes of Kentucky and Tennessee, that question was answered quickly with the classes he put together in 2020 and the one currently being put together in 2021. The next step was to develop the plethora of talent they had in Tuscaloosa, and Herb Jones benefited the most from their development skills. Herb Jones this season is shooting 45.5% from behind the arc, his first 3 seasons at Alabama he was a 20.8% 3 point shooter. The emphasis that the staff has put on three point shooting and the hard work that Jones has done throughout the offseason has allowed him to lead the team in 3P% this season. Jones' development as a shooter this season allows for Alabama to run more 5 out sets to space the floor better from dribble drivers like Quinerly, Shackelford, and others. Making it easier for them to get paint touches and either finish at the rim or kick out to the open shooter. According to Shot Quality, Alabama has the best Rim and 3 rate in the nation. This means that Alabama takes the most shots combined at the rim or from the arc then any other team in the nation. This stems from Oats emphasis on not taking mid range jump shots. Oats and staff put together a mixture of bringing in talent, developing that talent, and utilizing analytics in order to make sure the team was taking the most efficient shots and those things helped turn Alabama into a SEC champion in year 2.
Now Alabama is heading to the SEC tournament with a 21-6 overall record and the #1 overall seed. Oats and company have Alabama primed to make a run in March. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the tide as the #5 overall seed, the highest 2 seed in the tournament. A SEC Tournament Championship would almost guarantee that Alabama would be heading to the NCAA tournament as a 1 seed for the 1st time in program history. Oats and staff sent a message to the SEC in year 2 that they will be a force in the conference for years to come.
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