Thursday may be the most important day of Nate Oats’ Alabama basketball coaching career.
Until the next day, and the day after that and on and on…
Oats, who is leaving the University of Buffalo to become the next Crimson Tide basketball coach, replacing Avery Johnson, will have an introductory press conference on Thursday afternoon. For some Alabama fans, the introduction will be necessary. Buffalo has been in the NCAA Tournament for three years and had Buffalo ranked in the AP top 25 for almost all of the 2019 season. But most Southeastern Conference fans don’t make a habit of watching a lot of Mid-American Conference hoops. For others, Oats comes in as a known commodity, backed by a stack of gushing testimonials from many respected members of the college basketball Press-and-Twitter Corps.
But after two hires and eight years of hoping for results that never quite matched expectations, one can’t blame Crimson Tide fans for being a bit wary. Oats comes from a different region of the country, with a different background. There is going to be an element of the experimental in this hire, as in most hires. So a good first impression will help. A jolt of enthusiasm will raise spirits.
What’s going to matter most, though, are the rest of the days in this week, the ones after the press conference, the ones where the real work gets done. Oats has to stabilize the next season’s roster to the extent that he can — re-recruiting players that he wants to keep, current members of the squad as well as recruits.
Then there is adding more recruits, if possible in the late period. There is the critical work of re-establishing a culture of accountability that seemed to have vanished like melting ice on Lake Erie — the new coach will find out soon enough that Lake Tuscaloosa doesn’t freeze — as the 2019 season wore on. He will also learn that football matters here but, contrary to some outside perceptions, that doesn’t mean basketball doesn’t matter, too.
Alabama people know good basketball — and hard work.
Having a team that wins is the ultimate measure of success for any coach but having a team that gives consistent effort is the foundation of winning.
That requires teaching, too. It’s an overstatement, and unfair to the previous staff, to say that there were no fundamentals last year. Alabama was good defensively in 2019, the best in the league against the 3-point shot. Offensively, there has been an eight-year wait to see an often-promised uptempo style that didn’t result in more turnovers than layups. There are opportunities to work with players in various ways in the off-season. Those are the days where Oats needs to work magic, moreso than at Thursday’s podium.
For almost 40 years, Alabama basketball coaching followed a line of succession as closely as the Tudor Dynasty. C.M. Newton, who ushered in the modern age of Alabama basketball from the end of segregation into a far more competitive SEC, was followed by his assistant Wimp Sanderson, who was followed by his assistant David Hobbs. He was followed by Mark Gottfried, who played for Sanderson. There were great moments in that four decades, along with some long-nurtured heartache.
After that, Alabama opened up somewhat, but not entirely. Anthony Grant had been successful at VCU but had a long SEC history — perhaps the decisive line on his resume — as Billy Donovan’s assistant at Florida. Johnson’s coaching work had all been in the NBA — perhaps more college experience would have helped — but was a son of New Orleans.
Oats, it seems, will be a sea change, someone new, with different influences that some Alabama fans have called for in the past — a midwestern style that emphasizes fundamentals over pure athleticism. Thursday will be an opportunity for him to explain his vision.
The work beyond that will determine how quickly Alabama fans embrace it.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.
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