What if Nate Oats coached some of Wimp Sanderson's best Alabama basketball players?| Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

The unexpected postponement of Alabama basketball’s midweek basketball game against Texas A&M, which slid from Wednesday to Thursday to Siberia on the ice of the polar vortex (and which might or might not be defrosted at a later date) left some time for Crimson Tide fans to move from a laser focus on this year’s SEC race to more esoteric topics.

One popular topic is where this Alabama team, off to a start that equals or surpasses any SEC start in the last 56 years, would stack up against those teams since the Rocket Eight.

Such comparisons are early at this juncture for two reasons. First, the 2021 regular season isn’t even over yet. While the Crimson Tide has a comfortable cushion in the SEC race, hurdles remain. There will be a major challenge next week when UA plays its closest competitor, Arkansas, on the road. Until nets are actually cut down, work remains. Second, even teams with great regular-season résumés are judged on their play in the postseason.

That’s true for football, too. But the NCAA Tournament, arguably America’s closest thing to a national sporting event, commands such attention, even from casual fans, that it becomes the benchmark. That’s why, for instance, that Alabama's Elite Eight team from 2004, with wins over No. 1 Stanford and Syracuse along the way, is remembered more fondly than the 2002 team that had a much better record in the SEC.

More interesting, at least until the final tallies are in, is what would have happened if Nate Oats had coached one of the great Wimp Sanderson teams from the 1980s and early 1990s? That’s not arguing that either style is superior. Sanderson won his way, relying on working the ball inside to score in the post. Oats’ teams play faster, scoring by having perimeter players drive to the rim and, when opponents collapse on the driver or are slow in transition, by finding the open 3-point shooter. 

Former NBA player Robert Horry jokes with former Alabama teammates at center court as the Crimson Tide's 1989-90 team is honored during halftime of Saturday's 82-78 loss to Arkansas on Saturday in Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa. The halftime ceremony was part of the 30-year anniversary reunion of the first of Alabama's back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances in 1990. (Photo by Alex Byington/Montgomery Advertiser)

Sanderson, though, had many individual stars who certainly seemed like the type that would thrive in an Oats-style offense. Derrick McKey, Latrell Sprewell and Buck Johnson are examples on the perimeter. But to pick one team, one game, a single time capsule, think of one of Alabama’s most famous games: the 1990 NCAA Tournament loss to Loyola Marymount. Sanderson famously chose to play at a slow tempo, a decision that he still defends since it kept the run-and-gun Lions to just 62 points in their two-point win.

But how would Oats’ system hypothetically have fared? 

For one thing, Alabama would probably have played more players than the seven used by Sanderson, who preferred a limited rotation. But consider the floor spacing that Alabama team could have created with Gary Waites driving to the basket amidst tall shooters like Robert Horry, Melvin Cheatum, David Benoit and Keith Askins.

Alabama tried just seven 3-point shots that day, making only one. But that same roster with Oats coaching might have tried 37. Horry was the prototypical stretch forward, a role he made famous as Big Shot Bob in the NBA. Askins was an excellent shooter. Cheatum relied largely on the 12- to 15-foot jumper that Oats eschews, but could certainly have extended his range. Benoit shot well enough from distance that you couldn’t leave him unguarded. Alabama’s other guard, James Sanders, wasn’t a great shooter but could drive to the basket in a Jaden Shackelford way, leaving Waites as a fourth shooter.

The tempo would certainly have been to Loyola’s liking, but matching up with Horry and Askins would have been a major headache. No one can step back in time for certainty, but even if Loyola Marymount’s wave of emotion after the death of Bo Kimble had carried it to victory, it might have been more like 112-110 than 62-60, and a fascinating spectacle to watch.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt