TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When it comes to coaching conference championship teams, Alabama basketball coach Nate Oats is no stranger.
With the Crimson Tide’s 2020-2021 regular-season SEC title being clinched last Saturday, Oats earned the third of his career — a stat that’s even more impressive when you consider that the 46-year-old coach has only been coaching at the college level as a head coach for six seasons.
While Oats was at Buffalo from 2015-2019, the Bulls won the Mid-American Conference regular-season title in both 2018 and 2019. Buffalo also won the conference tournament in both of those seasons in addition to 2016.
While Oats has yet to field a team in the SEC Tournament despite it being his second year as head coach thanks to an early end to the season due to COVID-19 last season and the regular season wrapping up this weekend, his Crimson Tide has locked up the 1-seed with its 15-2 SEC record, giving the team a decent shot at hoisting the trophy in Nashville.
On Tuesday night, Alabama wrapped up a season sweep over Auburn — something that the Crimson Tide has not been able to do since the 2014-2015 season. Following the game, Oats was asked about how his current conference-clinching team compares to that of his former MAC title teams at Buffalo.
His response came as no surprise, as Oats said that they are quite similar.
“The identity of my teams have been pretty similar to be honest with you — the ones that have won it,” Oats said following the win over the Tigers. “I mean, they’re kinda tough, gritty, hard-nosed. I’ll say this: we’re a better defensive team than I’ve ever coached.”
Prior to this season, Oats’ best team was arguably his 2018-2019 team at Buffalo. His final team prior to heading down to Alabama was ranked as high as 14 in the AP Top 25, won both its conference regular-season MAC title as well as its conference tournament and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The team finished 32-4 overall and 16-2 in the conference.
Ironically, should Alabama beat Georgia on Saturday in Athens, the Crimson Tide will have the same conference record.
In that 2018-2019 season, the Bulls finished 31st in adjusted defense according to KenPom and 21st in adjusted offense. Combine that with being ranked 11th in adjusted tempo, and you can begin to see why the Bulls were such a solid team despite hailing from the MAC.
This year’s Alabama team is not so different. While its offense has been struggling over the last month, it still ranks 41 according to KenPom. In defense, Alabama is all the way up to third, but had been rising and falling between first and third seemingly for the past month as well. Top that all off with being ranked 10th in tempo, and just like Buffalo, it’s easy to see why the Crimson Tide just clinched its ninth SEC regular-season title.
To Oats, the defense is what’s made all the difference.
“I think as much as anybody wants to talk about our analytics on offense — our threes and all that — shoot, this team has been the best defensive team I’ve ever coached,” Oats said. “We’ve kinda hung our hat on defense and we’re still playing a style that fits how we wanted to play coming in here but offense hasn’t been our strong suit here basically in February or March so far.
“We’ve had a couple of games where we’ve played better but we’ve really hung our hat on the defensive end getting stops and then really winning games on the defensive end.”
Alabama will likely start the NCAA Tournament as a 2-seed if all of the current projections hold up. The Crimson Tide could rise as high as a 1-seed should it win the SEC Tournament and some other factors occur such as Michigan losing early in the Big Ten Tournament, but that remains to be seen. Regardless, Alabama is on track to finish the season strong.
There is certainly still a lot of basketball left to be played, but as Crimson Tide fans have become familiar with the mantra ‘Defense wins championships’ regarding football, who’s to say that can’t apply to basketball as well?