The Southeastern Conference Tournament was once a happy destination for the Alabama men’s basketball team, sort of like Spring Break at the beach, or a Vegas vacation, or at least taking the kids out for ice cream.
As someone who remembers those days, I will say it so you don’t have to.
It’s been nearly 30 years since Alabama won the SEC tournament, almost 20 years since they reached the finals. For the past decade or so in particular, the trip has changed from a joyride to a sort of existential diner in the vast prairie of broken dreams and forgotten teams, one where Alabama’s order never changes.
“Yes, I’d like to start with a soft-boiled egg, please.”
“Very good, sir. And after that?”
“I’d like a large order of Kentucky.”
“I see, sir. I don’t suppose you’ll be wanting anything else.”
“No, that should be enough.”
That’s not a knock at the current team or the current coaches for anything other than being a one-year part of a pattern that has lasted for the better part of a decade, beginning in the latter stages of Mark Gottfried’s tenure. The easy thing, in the wake of a terrible final week of the regular season is to panic about the coaches, or point at the players for “quitting.” There is no disputing that the team was flat against Vanderbilt and that offensive frustration sapped the collective will to play defense in the last 10 minutes of the Missouri game. Oats has said so himself.
But as far as evaluating Oats’ first year overall, I think several points can be made.
First, expectations were fairly high. There was a good bit of confidence that this was an “NCAA team” — Oats set the bar there himself at SEC Media Days in October. But the roster on which those predictions were made never materialized. (For the record, I picked Alabama to finish eighth in the league, .500 rather than two games under).
Second, and this is purely psychological: losing the home opener against a decent but not great Penn team was an instant damper. Metrics matter. Strength of schedule matters. But Alabama has been struggling through “good losses” in November and December for years now. For at least a few days, Alabama needs to be doing something other than making up ground. I don’t know who will end up as the No. 353 team in the NCAA this season — Chicago State, maybe — but Alabama needs to open with them next season, if only to be 1-0 for a little while.
Third, and this is critical: Alabama, and this goes beyond Oats, needs to recognize that it is teetering on the brink of an Ole Miss-like level of basketball relevance and are doing so in a worse facility than Ole Miss has. Yes, there are financial realities that will keep Coleman Coliseum from a well-earned destruction. Yes, there are “plans.” But it’s time for concrete plans about when the concrete will be poured.
Fourth, nothing is less productive than overanalysis of a first-year coach. Oats was given a 12-piece puzzle frame and started the year with nine pieces to fill it. When he managed to mix and match and film it with something coherent in mid-January, the injuries removed two of the most important remaining pieces (Herb Jones and John Petty) and said “OK, now try to solve it.” Game planning for Alabama at this point isn’t difficult because if you trap and harass Kira Lewis in the open floor, then fall back and take away his driving lanes, all that’s left is guarding Jalen Shackelford out to 25 feet. Petty’s return for the tournament would help but at this point, this is not a team built to win four games in four days.
The game performance is a short team issue. Oats clearly has the obvious fix — recruiting — on his mind. There is no better window into a coach’s mind than when he gives an answer that is barely related to the question that’s been asked. (This is a Nick Saban specialty.)
Oats raised some eyebrows on Monday when he said that “there are different ways to do it in this league There’s some programs that are getting a lot of 5-star kids right out of high school, winning big and doing it that way. We’ve got to go find players every which way, whether it’s JUCOs, transfers, high school kids.”
The question wasn’t about recruiting. It was about Arkansas’ guard Mason Jones, a former juco, but it was easy to see what Oats had on his mind by his reaction.
There will have to be answers for the near term. Oats didn’t cause that. He inherited it. The current state of the Alabama program is the result of a 10-year drift and there aren’t 10 years to fix it. Oats can get his part done but it’s been long enough now that every single aspect of the program, from commitment to game atmosphere, needs re-examination and real change, not just stale reminders that Alabama was really good in the SEC Tournament 30 years ago.
Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports or via Twitter @cecilhurt