As COVID-19 threatens top programs, Alabama basketball charges toward a championship | Hurt
NASHVILLE – Around the country, COVID-19 is forcing teams out of their conference tournaments. On his own team, a knee injury in a history-making blowout is a cause for concern. On the NCAA Tournament front, Alabama basketball is easily in the field, probably locked onto the No. 2 seed line after crushing Mississippi State on Friday in the SEC Tournament.
Nate Oats wants to keep playing, and playing hard.
While this year’s NCAA Tournament is the object of immediate attention, Oats has also stressed something else in recent days: He is attempting to change the culture, and a trip to the SEC final for the first time in 20 years would be a step. So, yes, he wants to play.
"I think our medical staff's done a great job,” Oats said via Zoom. “We are going to control what we can control. We want to play games.”
Paying Alabama basketball coach:Nate Oats gets contract extension, raise, increased buyout
A look at Alabama basketball coach's roots:To understand Alabaml's rise under Nate Oats, you have to start in Michigan
Oats was speaking of COVID-19, which has sidelined Duke, Virginia and Kansas this week, although the immediate concern was the status of guard Josh Primo. The freshman had to be helped from the floor Friday after injuring his left knee in the 85-48 win over Mississippi State.
Alabama has had to juggle injuries all season long, losing Jordan Bruner to two knee surgeries in January (although he has made a less-than-100 percent return since). Both Primo and Herbert Jones have had to play through hip and back issues. Juwan Gary missed time with a bruised shoulder. Jahvon Quinerly and James Rojas Beth missed games due to illness.
Alabama has navigated through it all, winning 17 of 19 games, but had hopes that it would be at full strength for the NCAA Tournament. That isn’t certain now.
Depth has been developed to the point that Alabama could use Keon Ellis in place of Primo, a move that was made against Mississippi State in Starkville Feb. 27. Primo played just eight minutes that night, but also continues to have 20-point scoring potential and the length and athleticism that makes the Alabama defense intimidating even without a true rim protector.
Oats was “hopeful” that Primo could be back soon, but hardly sounded definite.
He was more positive about COVID-19. Whether Alabama’s season ends in the semifinals or with another net-cutting on Sunday, it is headed straight from Nashville to Indianapolis and the NCAA bubble, and Oats feels that things will be fine.
"We've said we wanted to play since day one," Oats said. "I'm really glad I am coaching in the SEC during this. I think our league has done a better job than anyone else in the country at handling this thing. I'm really glad I am coaching at the University of Alabama because, within the SEC, Alabama has done as good a job than anyone else handling this. Clarke (Holter), Jeff Allen, the head trainer, our team doctor, our players have done a great job.
"Some of our players have had it. Some of them are still within their (immunity) time. We still have had some that haven't had it. They have their masks on all the time. We are going through walk-throughs and they have them on. They know what they have riding on the line this year, and I think everyone is doing a real good job."
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twiter @cecilhurt