Nate Oats isn’t focused on a limited capacity crowd or the uncertain climate surrounding college basketball. At the moment, the Alabama head coach is excited about his team this year and is ready to see it in action.
After an extended offseason, he’ll finally have that chance Wednesday night as the Crimson Tide is set to host Jacksonville State at 7 p.m. CT inside Coleman Coliseum.
“This is what we practice for. So, we’re excited,” Oats said during a Zoom call with reporters Tuesday. “I thought we’ve had good practices. We told the guys after we finished today, ‘We got the full 30 in.’ A lot of programs around the country haven’t been able to get their full 30 practices in. We have. We’ve been fortunate in that regard.”
Following a debut season that saw his team finish 16-15 (8-10 in the SEC), Oats has reason for optimism this year as the Tide is thought to be a conference contender after undergoing a roster revamp this offseason.
Here are five things for Alabama fans to be excited about heading into Year 2 of the Nate Oats era.
The new guys
Alabama brings in six new scholarship players this year. While freshman forward Alex Tchikou will miss the season with an Achilles injury, the other five additions should bring a balance of talent, experience and depth to the Tide’s roster.
Alabama added one of the nation’s top graduate transfers in Jordan Bruner as well as one of the top freshmen in this year’s class in Joshua Primo. The Tide also brought in an NJCAA All-American in JUCO wing Keon Ellis as well as a pair of four-star freshmen wings in Keon Ambrose-Hylton and Darius Miles.
Bruner should slot in as Alabama’s starting big man, while Primo arguably has the highest ceiling of anyone on the roster. Ellis adds a veteran scorer and defender, while Ambrose-Hylton and Miles should offer athleticism off the bench.
Alabama also returns two players who suffered season-ending knee injuries last fall. JUCO transfer James Rojas, a versatile big man with 3-point range, should be available for the opener against Jacksonville State. Meanwhile, Juwan Gary, an athletic wing capable of driving to the lane, is questionable for the opener but is close to a return.
A better fit for Oats’ system
Regardless of its struggles, one thing was certain for Alabama under Oats last season: it was going to play fast. Really, really fast. The Tide ranked fourth in adjusted tempo (74.8 possessions per 40 minutes) which translated to the nation’s No. 3 offense averaging 82 points per game. Alabama’s aforementioned additions and returning stars should only add to that attack.
Although where Alabama can really stand to improve is on defense where it tied for No. 333 in the nation last season allowing 79 points per game. The Tide’s influx of athleticism should provide Oats with the defensive versatility needed to better run his system while also setting up his offense with stops on the other end.
“Just the length and athleticism everywhere with our roster is what we were trying to get to,” Oats said. “It certainly makes it easier. You get more deflections, cover mistakes easier with blocks, able to switch more. Guys can’t punish a mismatch on a post up as easily when your guards are bigger.
“I’m excited to see what we can do defensively tomorrow almost as much as anything. That’s where we’ve got to make the biggest jump this year in improvement is on the defensive end.”
Jahvon Quinerly will receive a much-awaited birthday present Wednesday as he plays in a competitive game for the first time since the spring of last year. The redshirt sophomore point guard was forced to sit out last season after failing to receive an eligibility waiver following his transfer from Villanova.
Quinerly, who turns 22 years old Wednesday, is a former McDonalds All-American and the No. 31 overall player in the 2018 class. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound point guard is expected to fill the vacated role left behind by first-round pick Kira Lewis Jr. and should serve as one of the Tide’s biggest contributors this season.
“They’re gonna see a high-IQ point guard that can do everything on the floor,” sophomore guard Jaden Shackelford said when asked what fans should expect from Quinerly. “He makes his teammates better, he can make shots himself — I mean he’s just an all-around great player. He’s a great teammate. We’re pretty close off the court. He’s going to make our team way better this year.”
A healthy Herbert Jones
Herbert Jones was Alabama’s glue guy last year. The 6-foot-8, 210-pound forward earned SEC all-defensive team honors, leading the Tide in charges taken (22), deflections (84) and floor dives (31) while finishing with a team-best 593 Blue Collar Points — the metric the team uses to measure effort and hustle plays. Those numbers came despite battling a multitude of injuries — most notably a fractured left wrist which caused him to play with a cast on his dominant left hand to close out the season.
Now healthy, Jones is reportedly finding a groove offensively. If he is able to add to his 7.9 points per game from last season while still maintaining his defensive prowess, he will offer a scary proposition for opposing teams this season.
Alabama has plenty of depth
Alabama hasn’t had this type of talent in almost two decades. In Shackelford and John Petty Jr., the Tide has two of the SEC’s top returning scorers. Mix that with a former five-star recruit in Quinerly, a standout defender in Jones and a versatile big man in Bruner, and Alabama could have one of the conference’s most formidable starting fives.
That is if that’s even the group of starters Oats elects to go with.
The word starter might not mean as much in Tuscaloosa, Ala. this season as Oats reiterated Tuesday that his starting five wouldn’t necessarily be his best five. While there might be some difficult decisions to make early on, that’s a challenge the head coach gladly embraces.
“I think we’ll figure it out as it goes through,” Oats said. “It’s going to change from game to game as to who finishes, what’s the other team playing, who’s playing well, all that. I think finishing the game’s probably more important than starting the game.”
On top of settling on a starting five, Oats might also have a hard time getting all of his talent onto the court. Even with Tchikou out for the season, Alabama has 12 talented scholarship players on its roster. Oats said his plan early on is to get as many of his players action as possible before whittling his rotation down to eight or nine by the beginning of conference play.
These are the type of problems Tide fans can be excited about moving forward.