August 11, 2020

Is Alabama Basketball Back? A Midseason Review

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Following Alabama basketball’s prominent 83-64 upset of in-state rival and formerly undefeated No. 4 Auburn Tigers, a question has started to linger on the minds of the Crimson Tide faithful.

Is Alabama basketball back?

The answer to the query is more difficult to answer than one might imagine. It might even be considered too early to tell, albeit not unwarranted.

Let us start our examination of an answer to this query with a midseason review.

The end of the 2018-2019 season was excruciating one for Alabama fans. With former coach Avery Johnson out after yet another disappointing season that saw Alabama ousted in the first round of the NIT tournament to Norfolk State — at home, no less — enthusiasm for the program hit a new low (maybe not all-time, but at least recently).

Even in the Crimson Tide’s NIT matchup against the Spartans, attendance was terrible. It seemed that Alabama was doomed for mediocrity forever.

Enter new head coach Nate Oats.

Nate Oats
Alabama Athletics
With Oats’ hiring, a new spark was kindled in the Crimson Tide fanbase. Oats came from Buffalo, coming off of a season that saw him win his third MAC title in four years as well as his team’s third NCAA Tournament in the same amount of time. Oats’ blue-collar, fast-paced style of play was exciting for both his players and fans alike, and the Crimson Tide had more than a good reason to be excited for his arrival in Tuscaloosa.

Changes in the program were immediately evident. After the firing of Johnson, several Alabama players, chiefly among them freshman guard Kira Lewis, Jr., and sophomore guard John Petty, Jr., had both entered the transfer portal. Soon after Oats’ arrival, though, both players withdrew their names and returned to help lead the team.

It seemed that the enthusiasm for Oats was spreading.

Jump forward to Alabama’s season opener back on Nov. 5 to Penn. A sizable crowd gathered for the game, hoping to take a gander at the new and improved Crimson Tide with its new coach at the helm.

Alabama lost in heartbreaking fashion, 81-80. With the loss, the fans where somewhere between disappointed and distraught. Was Alabama doomed to repeat the same failure and mediocrity that had plagued the program for so many years?

After dropping its season opener, the Crimson Tide seemed to exchange every win for a loss. At the end of the non-conference season, Alabama had been able to salvage a 7-5 record. It wasn’t exactly what everyone had hoped for, but things could have been far worse.

The injury-plagued Crimson Tide struggled terribly with turnover problems, giving up easy points to opposing teams.

It was not a total loss, though. Alabama had one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the country, so it was expected from the get-go that the team was almost, shall we say, “Doomed to fail.”

It was not.

Nearing the end of non-conference play, the Crimson Tide was able to string together a three-game win streak on top of winning five out of its last six.

As 2020 dawned, things were seemingly finally beginning to click for Oats and his crew. The egregious turnover margins had been lowered significantly. Both the free-throw game and 3-point shooting had improved.

At the dawn of a new decade, everything appeared to be finally coming together for Alabama basketball.

John Petty Jr. celebrates against Auburn
Alabama Athletics
With Southeastern Conference play beginning, the Crimson Tide found itself starting off in difficult fashion with a harsh road test against Florida. Alabama led for almost the entire game, and was on the verge of accomplishing what was formerly considered inconceivable.

Unfortunately for the team, it wasn’t meant to be. The game ultimately went into two overtimes and deflated Alabama with a 104-98 loss.

After two more SEC games, Alabama had a 1-2 record in the league, blasting Mississippi State in Tuscaloosa 90-69 but then falling in a tough game on the road 76-67 to No. 14 Kentucky.

But on Jan. 15, everything changed.

On the opposite side of the state, in-state rival Auburn had been going through the exact opposite scenario as Alabama. Following up a 2018-2019 season that saw an SEC Tournament championship and a run to the Final Four, Bruce Pearl had led his team to a 15-0 start and all the way up to No. 4 in the polls.

Leading up to the game was a considerable amount of hype. Auburn fans were still riding high on their football team’s defeat of Alabama in the Iron Bowl a couple of months previous, and with the success of the basketball team another win in the rivalry seemed imminent.

For Alabama fans, excitement surrounding their new program surged to its highest peak of the season. If any team could upset Auburn, why not Alabama? Why not now?

To honor Oats’ blue-collar style of play and the coveted “Hard Hat Award” that his players fought for every game, 500 shiny white helmets were given to the student section, which donned them with pride.

The result was a good ol’-fashioned, blue-collar beat-down in T-Town.

In front of a raucous sellout crowd, the Crimson Tide executed its game plan to a T. Alabama forced 12 turnovers from Auburn in the first half, resulting in 11 points.

Tigers freshman forward Isaac Okoro provided some trouble for the Crimson Tide early on, scoring 12 before halftime, but after some adjustments was held to only one point in the final 20 minutes.

The win was not only convincing, but lopsided. Auburn didn’t lead for a single moment. After 15 wins, the Tigers seemed in a daze, stunned that they were being out-worked.

Was this really how their undefeated season would end, at the hands of their bitter rival?

Lewis had a gem of a game with 25 points. Junior guard Herbert Jones had a double-double, registering 14 points and 12 rebounds. Junior forward Alex Reese, despite leaving the game for an extended period with a knee contusion, scored 13 points of his own.

In a game where many Auburn faithful had made the trip to Tuscaloosa, the majority left considerably before the final horn: Alabama 83, Auburn 67

It was clear that a new era in Alabama basketball had begun.

Oats was the first Alabama coach since David Hobbs in 1993 to beat Auburn in his first attempt. That alone was enough to convince the Crimson Tide fanbase that their excitement—through all the joy and exhilaration and through all the tears and pain—had been warranted.

Alabama celebrates defeating previously unbeaten No. 4 Auburn
Alabama Athletics
All of this brings us back to our original question: is Alabama basketball back?

In short: yes and no. Regarding the no, it is still far too early to tell whether the Crimson Tide will rally this season under the blue-collar banner and make a strong case for an NCAA Tournament bid. While the team is on the right track, the rest of the season still must play out and the Crimson Tide must acquire some solid road SEC wins if it wants to be playing in March.

A victory over No. 4 Auburn is a strong start, but it’s still just that, a a start. It won’t mean anything if Alabama turns around and loses to Missouri on Saturday. Alabama is 2-2 in the league, and successfully avoided a disheartening 1-3 start, but the season is still a long one.

Oats’ team will need to continue to develop moving forward, which is something else Alabama fans haven’t seen much of lately.

Regarding the yes, from a fan’s perspective the Nate Oats Era is in full swing.

If one could judge the success of a program off of the excitement of a fanbase, then Alabama basketball is back and better than ever. Enthusiasm for the program hasn’t been this high in nearly a decade, maybe longer. The student section has been jam-packed, and seats that were left vacant last season are being filled.

While Alabama basketball might not be officially back, one thing above all else is abundantly clear: There is a whole lot of excitement surrounding the program and the Crimson Tide will be a whole lot of fun to watch moving forward.

: Alabama 82, No. 4 Auburn 64
BamaCentral’s Cary L. Clark and Joey Blackwell break down the Crimson Tide’s stunning upset of the No. 4-ranked Tigers

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