Alabama hosts the fast-paced, dangerous Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday evening but it was apparent on Friday that Crimson Tide head coach Nate Oats was still wrestling with fundamental issues affecting his own basketball team.
Oats isn’t at a point of existential despair — Alabama, after all, is still in a solid position in the Southeastern Conference with a 4-3 league record and its losses all coming in road games against upper-division opposition (Florida, Kentucky and most recently at LSU.) But the loss in Baton Rouge on Wednesday, where Alabama gave up 51 first-half points and was outrebounded 49-31 by the Tigers. That came on the heels of a game in which Kansas State had 22 offensive rebounds to Alabama’s total of three.
“It speaks to toughness,” Oats said. “I’ve never had a team get outrebounded (like that for) two games in a row. It’s disastrous.
“As a player, you create your own resume, whether you want to play in the NBA or whatever. But there’s a few things you don’t want to be labeled as. One is lazy. That’s a label that’s hard to shake. Soft is another label that’s hard to shake. Selfish is hard to shake. If you’re out-rebounded (like that) in two games in a row, well, if you’re tough that doesn’t happen.
“We’ve been playing small (lineups) in some games but you can’t use playing small as an excuse. LSU’s tallest guy is their 3-man (small forward Trendon Watford) and he got 15 rebounds. The rest of their guys are 6-6 or 6-7 and they are definitely athletic, but we’ve got athletic guys, too.
“I was really upset with our effort at LSU. It’s just not who we’ve tried to be. I told our guys, ‘All this blue-collar mentality, the hard hat stuff, it’s all fake if this is the effort we’re going to get in the game. … and I don’t really want to be associated with a fake team.”
Oats has tried some small-scale solutions such as not starting junior John Petty at LSU. The old-school mentality of brutal practices with everything short of football pads and hockey sticks simply isn’t an option for a team with a short roster and a new list of health issues. Neither guard Beetle Bolden (gastrointestinal issues that kept him out of the LSU game) nor defensive stopper Herb Jones (wrist) practiced on Friday.
“We don’t want to get more injured than we already are,” Oats said. “We’re just trying to make it from game to game.”
Oats said he did expect Petty to respond positively after the benching.
“I love John,” he said. “He’s been the leader we need him to be (in practice.) Part of being a leader is handling criticism well. I think there’s sometimes some guys on this team are too sensitive. John owned it. He basically told me it’ll never happen again. The effort in the game against LSU, he told me, ‘I’m not going to let it happen again.’
“So, I think John’s ready to go. I think we’ll see a really good John Petty tomorrow.”
Through all of that, Arkansas comes into Coleman Coliseum with a 15-5 record and road wins at Indiana and Georgia Tech in non-conference play under first-year head coach Eric Musselman. Junior college transfer Mason Jones, a 6-foot-5 wing, is one of the SEC’s top scorers (19.3 ppg) and is coming in off a 34-point effort in a 79-77 loss to South Carolina on Wednesday night.
The Razorbacks, like Alabama and other teams at this point in the schedule, have their share of injury issues.
“We have three guys that are hurt,” Musselman said at his Thursday press conference. “Jimmy (Whitt, the starting point guard suffering from a calf bruise) did the least. He’s actually the guy we’re most worried about. Desi (Sills) sprained his ankle, so it’s never going to feel good the next day. Isaiah Joe (the Arkansas’ leader in 3-point baskets with 72 who has been slowed by a knee sprain) did about, I don’t know, maybe 40 percent of practice today. Jimmy basically did none.”
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