‘You Gotta Earn Your way into the NCAA Tournament’

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Following a roller coaster of a 2019-20 season full of ups and downs for Alabama basketball, head coach Nate Oats spoke to the media via Zoom in his first press conference ahead of the upcoming season.

Before the season came to an abrupt end due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Oats and his team compiled an overall record of 16-15 and had several impressive wins against ranked opponents including Auburn and LSU. When all was said and done, though, the Crimson Tide dropped four of its last six games, taking it out of contention for the NCAA tournament barring a miraculous run in the SEC tournament.

With neither the SEC nor NCAA tournaments taking place due to the coronavirus, none of that matters now. While Alabama might not have had the best season, expectations are higher than they have been in years thanks to the strong recruiting efforts of Oats and his staff combined with several key returners.

Regarding expectations for the 2020 season, Oats cited that one of the team’s biggest improvements was added depth to its bench.

“I think we’ll be much-improved,” Oats said. “Our depth’s going to be a lot better. As far as expectations [and] people ask where we’re gonna finish and all that, I don’t know all that. Obviously this season’s going to be a little different than a normal season being that you’re gonna have guys possibly out with COVID, this, that or the other so I do think depth’s a bigger deal this year than it’s ever been. We needed depth last year and didn’t have it with all the injuries that we had but I think that we should be competing for championships. SEC championships, tournament championship, making a run in the NCAA tournament, I think we’ve got the talent to.”

Before the season even started last year, the Crimson Tide received bad news regarding forwards junior James Rojas and redshirt-freshman Juwan Gary, both of whom suffered leg injuries just weeks before the season started. On top of that, sophomore guard Jahvon Quinerly, who had recently joined the team as a transfer from Villanova, was deemed ineligible by the NCAA to play in the 2019-2020 season.

With all three of those players now eligible to play and healed up combined with an excellent addition of six new players to the team’s roster, Alabama is set to show dramatic improvement over last season.

Continuing on his discussion of handling expectations, Oats stated that there is a lot of work that needs to be done before the team can start thinking about making runs in the end-of-season tournaments.

“There’s gotta be a lot of stuff that comes together to do that,” Oats said. “Chemistry has to be good, obviously injuries play a part in seasons, how guys perform. Everything looks great on paper but you actually have to get out and perform a little bit, too. We got high expectations and we’re not going to shy away from them. I think we’ve got a really talented roster, a roster that fits how we play better. Obviously losing Kira [Lewis] was big — [Quinerly]’s got huge shoes to fill — but there’s also other guys. [sophomore guard Jaden Shackelford]’s come a long ways in being able to play a little bit of one, [freshman guard Joshua] Primo’s been great in practice and he can play a lot of one. He’s a big guard. Herb Jones can play some one, hopefully we can keep him healthy all year. He’s looked tremendous in practice.

“We’ve got a lot of options at the different spots but yeah we do have high expectations for sure.”

While we will never know if Alabama would have made the NCAA tournament last season due to the season’s abrupt ending mere hours before the Crimson Tide was slated to take on Tennessee in the SEC tournament, Alabama would have most likely missed out on the tournament in Oats’ first season.

Back on Sept. 9, ACC men’s basketball coaches revealed a proposal that would expand the NCAA tournament to include all Division 1 basketball teams. The logic behind the proposal was that if teams were not going to conduct non conference games for the 2020 season due to COVID-19, then all teams should be entered into the tournament at the end of the 2020-2021 season.

The NCAA has since announced that non conference games are intended to be played this season despite the start being pushed back to Nov. 25. While this means that most likely the ACC coaches’ proposal will fall by the wayside, Oats was quick to take a jab at the plan.

“I think it’s ridiculous to be honest with you,” Oats said. “I mean nothing against [the ACC], they’ve got some really good coaches. I’m sure somebody had a bright idea but a lot of the writers made a point and I agree with them 100%, we already have that. Like, every conference I believe has a conference tournament. Right? So the conference tournaments lead into the NCAA tournament. Everybody has a chance to play their way into the Final Four. Win your conference tournament—that’s the first couple of rounds of the NCAA tournament, right? Then you’re in. What point would the conference tournament do if everybody’s gonna make the NCAA tournament? I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

While Oats clearly revealed that he is no way onboard with the ACC’s possible solution to non conference basketball in 2020, he did say that he understand their motives for creating such a radical proposal.

“I think they had some other motives behind like maybe — part of their deal I think in reading some of the stuff — was if there wasn’t a non conference and everybody just played conference games how would you decide who got in because you have no inter-conference play between conferences so we’ll just let everybody in,” Oats said. “Well that still begs the question how would you seed the teams if there was no inter-conference play? I think we need to have non conference games, I think we’re going to have ‘em. The NCAA just came out with it so now that we’re going to have non conference games I really don’t see any need to do what they were talking about. I don’t think it’s going to happen.

“Shoot, I was a high school coach. Everybody made the tournament in high school. This is not high school basketball anymore. You gotta earn your way into the NCAA tournament, it’s not everybody gets in. It’s big-boy Division I basketball here.”

One way or the other, Alabama basketball is poised to display some improvement over last year. With talk amongst fans of NCAA tournament aspirations, this year is looking like a season that the Crimson Tide makes its first appearance in March since 2018.

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