Nate Oats uses advice from Nick Saban and other coaches to get Alabama to its first Final Four

Sun, Mar 31, 2024
NCAAB News (AP)

Nate Oats uses advice from Nick Saban and other coaches to get Alabama to its first Final Four

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Nate Oats has Nick Saban on speed dial.

Yet the Alabama men's basketball coach knew he needed as much input as possible as his team was reeling heading into the NCAA Tournament.

The result? The Crimson Tide are making their first appearance in the Final Four. They have won four straight, including an 89-82 victory over Clemson in the West Regional final.

"The best team doesn't always win because it's a one-game elimination tournament. You've got to be hot at the right time. And we looked like we were not hot at the right time," Oats said.

Alabama entered March Madness with four losses in six games, three of which were by 14 points or more. After their loss to Florida in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, Oats spent the weekend before the selection show picking the brains of former Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and UMass' Frank Martin, who led South Carolina to the Final Four in 2017.

Both coaches took their teams on deep tournament runs after struggling late in the regular season. Oats also got advice from Saban and used that to his advantage.

"He kind of gave me the 'next' idea - next, next, next," Oats said. "So guys bought in. We can make this run. Other teams have done it. We have the capability to do it. ... We can have the No. 1 offense in the country; we had it for the majority of the year. Let's put a top-20 defense together and we can make a Final Four."

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Since arriving in Tuscaloosa in 2019, Oats hasn't been afraid or concerned about being shadowed by Saban and the football program.

Oats also asked Patrick Murphy, who has led the softball program to four national championships, to speak to his team in January. Murphy's hour-long talk was about "Mudita" - which means having vicarious joy in someone else's success.

The only thing Oats is worried about in relation to Saban is that he uses too many of his quotes.

"I'm going to pick the brains of all the ultra-successful coaches throughout the department. We've got multiple coaches, current coaches, that have won national championships, whether it's men's golf, women's golf, softball," Oats said. "But Coach Saban - I'm a big football fan. I came to Alabama loving the fact that I was going to be able to work in the same athletic department as arguably the best - maybe not even the best football coach - the best coach of any team sport in modern history, or college sports, anything, and I didn't want to bother him. But I certainly picked his brain when it was appropriate."

Oats has matched Saban when it comes to rebuilding a roster and surpassing expectations. Many picked Alabama to reach the Final Four last year as the top overall seed, but it lost to San Diego State in the Sweet 16.

Going into this season, Oats had only three returning players. He also had to replace three assistant coaches after they got head coaching jobs.

Mark Sears emerged as the Crimson Tide's leader and was a second-team Associated Press All-America selection. He also was the West Regional MVP after scoring 23 points against Clemson, including seven 3-pointers.

Alabama also got key contributions from the newcomers. Freshman Jarin Stevenson, who came into the game averaging 5.0 points, had a career-high 19 points. Grant Nelson, a transfer from North Dakota State, was solid again after taking over the final 10 minutes of the win over top-seeded North Carolina in Thursday night's regional semifinals.

"He's just a great coach all around," said senior Aaron Estrada, a transfer from Hofstra. "He lost a lot from last year. So just for him to rebuild a group like he got us, I think, like I said, it just goes to show how hardworking he is and how much of a competitor he is as well."

Oats and Alabama's next task will be to figure out how to stop defending national champion UConn in Saturday's national semifinals in Glendale, Arizona.

The Huskies have won their four NCAA Tournament games by an average of 27.8 points, including a 77-52 rout of Illinois in the East Regional final.

While preparing for the Huskies is a formidable task, Oats took a couple of minutes Saturday night to acknowledge that his ascent up the college coaching ranks has been "surreal."

"You go back 11 years, and I won a state championship at Romulus (High School) in the Detroit area. It hasn't been that long," he said. "I don't know if it's truly hit me yet. It probably won't hit me until after the Final Four is over because I'm going to enjoy it tonight, and we've got to figure out how to beat UConn."

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

JOE REEDY Sports writer based in Los Angeles. twitter mailto "
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