Fall 2021 SS Magazine

Not just a football school, 'historic' basketball season ends for Alabama men, coach Nate Oats

The dream season for Alabama and head coach Nate Oats ended Sunday night with a Sweet 16 loss to No. 11 seed UCLA. But this was a historic season for the Crimson Tide, and that’s what Oats is hoping his players focus on.

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“I don’t want them to walk out of this locker room with their heads down,” Oats told reporters after the game. “You can make the argument we’re one of the best, if not the best, Alabama basketball teams in history. I mean, won the SEC regular season, the tournament. There’s all kinds of records that were taking place.”

Alabama’s 26 victories tied for the second-most wins in program history and the Crimson Tide won the program’s first regular-season SEC championship since 2002, their first SEC Tournament title since 1991, and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2004.

It was an uncharacteristically poor shooting night for No. 2-seeded Crimson Tide on Sunday, when they played from behind against the upstart Bruins, who are just the second team to reach the Elite Eight after playing in the First Four. But Alabama senior Alex Reese sent the game into overtime with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.

Alabama was never able to capitalize on the momentum, however, as UCLA dominated the overtime period, outscoring the Tide 23-13 to win the game.

In just his second year at Alabama, though, Oats has established a winning culture and high-character program at a school more widely known for its storied football program. After taking over for Avery Johnson, Oats guided the team to a 16-15 record in 2019-20, with an 8-10 record in conference play. The Tide turned that around to a 26-6 overall record this season, and a 16-2 mark in SEC play. They were ranked as high as No. 5 in the Associated Press poll.

Oats credited his seniors — guys like SEC Player of the Year Herbert Jones, sharpshooter John Petty, and Reese — for sticking with the program and playing for a coach who didn’t recruit them. Petty had nothing but gratitude toward Oats following Sunday’s game.

“He made a huge impact,” Petty told reporters. “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. 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. He always built our confidence. He was just a perfect role model as a coach, perfect coach that we needed to come in and change this program around.

“I know all the guys that’s coming in next year, even the guys that’s coming back next year are going to love him and enjoy all the good things that he came and did for this team.”

Oats has always prided himself on being a family-oriented man who relies heavily on his faith. His wife battled double-hit lymphoma when he was the head coach at Buffalo, and he’s talked at length about how that experience helped shape his faith and who he is as a man. He has referred to that season of his life as “a wake-up call” for his faith.

“There were circumstances surrounding that where I had to make some decisions about whether I wanted to be the Christian man that I said I was, or whether I wanted to be hypocritical,” he said on the Sports Spectrum Podcast in 2019. “I didn’t want that. So in the last four years — three-and-a-half years or so — I really had a lot of introspection to where you evaluate where you’re at as a man and what you want.

“I really want my children to know me as a Christian father that demonstrates what it means to be a Christian to them. My wife can turn to me as the head of the house and really trust me as a Christian husband and father leading our family.”

The future is bright for Oats and Alabama basketball. Oats said he’s excited about the returning players as well as the “big-time recruits” who will on the roster next year.

But, for now, he’s taking time to reflect on what he called “an unbelievable team” that he’ll still be talking about the next 30 years.

“There was three seniors from the state of Alabama that they’re going to go down in Alabama basketball history,” Oats said Sunday. “Petty, Jones and Reese, couldn’t be more proud of them. … So that’s how I’m going to remember them. Best team I’ve coached.”

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