Alabama basketball returning to top of SEC validates Nate Oats' plan, key players staying | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

STARKVILLE, Miss. — John Petty had his choice of college destinations when he came out of Mae Jemison High School in Huntsville four years ago. He was recruited by the so-called blue bloods: Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan State and others, programs where he could have been fairly certain of competing for conference championships and NCAA glory.

Alabama couldn’t make those guarantees at that time. It had been nearly 20 years at that point since the Crimson Tide had been a basketball champion. Petty stayed in his home state anyway.

”When I found out who was coming with me, that’s really when I was coming,” Petty said Saturday in a slightly-soaked (and very loud) celebratory locker room. “I just knew the type of guys I’d be around: Herb (Jones), (Alex) Reese, Collin (Sexton) was coming with us. I knew this moment would come.”

Alabama guard John Petty Jr. (23) attempts to make a layup between Mississippi State forward Tolu Smith (35) and guard D.J. Stewart Jr. (3) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.

The moment came Saturday, when the Southeastern Conference regular-season title was secured.

Sexton, as expected, chose the one-and-done path to the NBA. Petty, Reese and Jones stayed. The coach who recruited them, Avery Johnson, was replaced by a coach they never met, Nate Oats. Again, they stayed, partly because Alabama was home, partly because Oats’ vision was intriguing.

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Saturday was vindication, the Crimson Tide’s first SEC title since 2002 and the first time since 1975 that Alabama was SEC champion in football and men’s basketball. Alabama has been good before, but has been fighting uphill for almost all of Petty’s lifetime, and Reese’s and Jones', and for a generation of fans who don’t really remember Mule King or Antonio McDyess.

Oats’ plan worked, even if it took some time for Petty and the other upperclassmen to grasp it. The fast-moving, deep-shooting, uptempo attack was only a part of it, a part you had to look hard to find in Starkville. The championship came, as championships usually do, with toughness and hard work and, especially, defense.

“To rebound the ball like we did and play as hard as we did, the kids diving on the floor for loose balls, taking charges, was great. I thought our defensive effort was the best we’ve had in a long time," Oats said. 

“We didn’t play well on offense. Give Mississippi State some credit for that. We’ll get the offense fixed but I’m just really proud of the guys for how hard they played.”

Culture change in a program doesn’t just happen. It takes time and it occurs on various levels. It doesn’t mean that Alabama basketball is going to supplant Alabama football, but basketball doesn’t have to stand in the shadows, either.

For future recruits, the possibilities are not just hypothetical. Alabama can win a conference championship. More steps remain, especially changing the narrative in postseason play as well. But if what happened Saturday can happen, then more positives can happen and the momentum for a culture change will continue to grow.

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