How Nate Oats found the formula to lead Alabama to its first Final Four

LOS ANGELES — To add to the list of things you don’t see every day, Nick Pringle extricated himself from a mass of happy bodies and headed off to dance with a fuzzy elephant. The Alabama big man skipped down the Arena floor with a smile. He located Big Al near the cheerleading team. Pringle slung his long left arm around the mascot’s shoulders, and the two of them hopped and kicked as the band played, like a fever dream brought to life.

As Pringle explained a few minutes later, while wearing a hard hat and cradling a trophy, he does this after home wins, too. This was not new. The rest of it, though? A strange world. Where no Alabama man nor hatted pachyderm has gone before. For the first time in actually forever, the Crimson Tide men were in the Final Four. Surreal was a pretty good place to start, whether you believed your eyes or not.

“A lot of people called us soft, said we’re not ready,” Pringle said, following an 89-82 win over Clemson that effectively served as proof of everything this era of Alabama basketball believes in. “We’ve proved everybody wrong at this point. Two more games. We want it all.”

Long ago, Alabama tried this with an acolyte of Adolph Rupp. The school then spent decades hoping one of its very own would fly the program into the clouds. It brought in a couple of promising outsiders who turned out to be wet squibs. In the end, it wound up being a single-minded former math teacher from Wisconsin crunching the numbers, dropping the brick on the gas and telling his players to let it rip. By his calculations, it would all work out. And before 9 p.m. local time on a Saturday night in March, Nate Oats had a net around his neck.

At last, it adds up. An athletics-obsessed place, conspicuously absent from a crowning college event for over a century, now bound for a promised land in the desert. The Tide will roll into Glendale, Ariz., next week, having successfully blurred the lines of its own athletic identity. “We’re a championship school,” Alabama guard Mark Sears said late Saturday, scissors in hand, headed for another net to cut down.

In 1968, after consecutive losing seasons continued a tradition of fair to middling results, Paul “Bear” Bryant wanted a coach to turn the Alabama basketball program around. He called Rupp, who recommended a former player of his, C.M. Newton. It took five seasons, but the Crimson Tide became a top-25 team. They did not, however, advance past the regional semifinal round in the NCAA Tournament. Wimp Sanderson, Newton’s top assistant coach and an Alabama man thick and through, took over in 1980 when Newton left for a job with the SEC. He won 352 games but zero in the Sweet 16.

One of Sanderson’s assistants, David Hobbs, followed him. One of Sanderson’s players, Mark Gottfried, followed Hobbs. The best either of them did was Gottfried leading the Crimson Tide to an Elite Eight in 2004. After that, Alabama turned to a couple of outsiders in Anthony Grant and Avery Johnson; Grant was part of two NCAA championship teams as a Florida assistant coach, and Johnson won an NBA title as a player and an NBA Coach of the Year seven years later. Alabama got two NCAA Tournament victories, total, out of those two.

On March 28, 2019, never quite fully lifted out of the quagmire that frustrated the Bear about a half-century earlier, Alabama named Nate Oats its new men’s basketball coach. A guy from Wisconsin whose longest stint as a head coach at any level was 11 years at Romulus (Mich.) High School. Not exactly a Tuscaloosa archetype. “I told him we had to get in the gym, just as a program,” athletic director Greg Byrne said Saturday, holding an autographed game ball.

This, though, Oats could do.

He played at Maranatha Baptist in Watertown, Wisconsin. He went from state championship-winning high school coach to 96 wins in four years at Buffalo following Bobby Hurley’s departure for Arizona State, including a 59-13 record in the last two. He was preposterously ambitious and obsessed with analytics. He wanted all the numbers, so he could find an edge somewhere in them. He was that guy at Buffalo, but he was also coaching at a place that didn’t afford him more than a handful of managers and support staff that could compute the data and give him what he needed.

“It takes manpower,” said Adam Bauman, Alabama’s current director of scouting and analytics, who has worked with Oats since his Buffalo days, “and it takes money.”

At Alabama, Oats had come to the right place.

According to Bauman’s count, there are nine graduate assistants and 23 managers tasked with tracking and compiling every possible basketball inflection imaginable daily, be it in the practice gym or games or watching opponent tape. Did a player take a shot going right or left? Did he do it off a hop or a one-two step? Asked how many Synergy Sports accounts the program has, assistant coach Ryan Pannone went wide-eyed. “Fifty? I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “We spare nothing when it comes to making sure we’re prepared.”

Never mind the outside analytics firm Alabama basketball has on call, too. It’s all in service of giving a math teacher what he needs to solve the next equation. It injected Oats’ brain with steroids. “That’s a pretty good way of putting it, yeah,” Bauman said. “Any question he has from a numbers standpoint, we have the answer.”

Well before Alabama reached this point in this season, everyone understood what the modern version of Alabama basketball had to look like. Play fast. Most 3-pointers and at-the-rim 2s were, generally, the only approved shots, because they were the most efficient options. “Non-shrink 3s” — long-range shots taken without collapsing the defense first — were not optimal. The justification is in the outcomes: Alabama has ranked 16th, 20th and third nationally, respectively, in adjusted offensive efficiency over the last three seasons.

There are exceptions, rarely; current Crimson Tide guard Aaron Estrada has some leeway to shoot floaters, or at least to try to see if his floater is working in a given game, because he’s shown the capacity to make them at a high rate. “(Oats) has actually told me he’ll be a little more lenient with me,” Estrada said, “because points are points at the end of the day.” But the rules are rules for a reason. Sam Walters couldn’t recall the game or the opponent, but the freshman forward did remember the shot and what happened after: a midrange fadeaway jumper that he airballed early in this season, and the immediate trip to the bench he earned.

“I didn’t even have to look at him,” Walters said. “I already knew there was a sub waiting for me.”

Five years into the Nate Oats experience, everyone understands: The math has to make sense. Pannone joined Alabama this year after working with the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans; he said franchise president David Griffin described Alabama as the league’s “31st team,” given the commitment to a system and terminology that might as well be used in the pros. “When you watch from the outside, you think it’s sort of chaotic, and they only jack up shots,” said Alabama assistant coach Austin Claunch, who left a head coaching gig at Nicholls State to work for Oats, and who now will move on to Texas-San Antonio as head coach after this run. “No, there’s certainly a reason to the madness. It’s really about just playing efficient. People talk about the analytics — it’s more so just teaching our guys the most efficient style of basketball.”

On Saturday, the math worked again.

Alabama was going to be Alabama. Lots of 3s and short 2s. Clemson, which could not match the Crimson Tide shot-for-shot from long range, aimed to pound the ball into the post and try to win via high-percentage 2s and tilting the numbers from the charity stripe. (The Tigers ranked 10th nationally in free-throw percentage going into the Elite Eight.) It looked like it could work when Alabama missed 12 of its first 13 shots from 3-point range. When the Crimson Tide fell behind by 13 points early against a sturdy, experienced defensive crew. When it seemed like yet another favored team would thoughtlessly chuck its way straight out of the NCAA Tournament.

It could’ve happened. The percentages just suggested it wouldn’t. So Alabama didn’t stop. “It’s pre-mortem,” Pannone said. “We know what we’re willing to die by.”

After making one of its first 13 tries from 3-point range, Alabama hit nine of the next 13. It finished 16-of-36 from long distance. After freshman Jarin Stevenson airballed a 3-pointer in the second half, Oats clapped emphatically from the coach’s box. “Good shot!” he barked. Stevenson entered the game as a 29 percent 3-point shooter. He was, in theory, the guy who Clemson could lay off of. He finished with a career-high 19 points and five made 3s.

If it’s the right shot? It’s the right shot. “For all the naysayers, is 36 (3s) too many?” Oats said. “Sixteen out of 36 ain’t bad. Forty-eight points from the 3-point line ain’t too bad.”

Jarin Stevenson, a 29 percent 3-point shooter, drained five triples against Clemson. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)

The Crimson Tide indeed doubled the Tigers’ point total from beyond the arc and then watched happily as Clemson missed 8 of 11 free throws in the second half of a game it lost by seven.

The margin wasn’t large. And there’s no analytical insight that accounts for Alabama’s relative improvement defensively during the NCAA Tournament, which is just enough to complement its typically productive offense. “We just figured out, if we don’t want to play defense,” forward Mouhamed Dioubate said, “then we’re going to go home.” Still, there’s something to all those shot charts and intimately specific self-scouts and in-the-moment calculations they produce. There’s something to the belief Alabama has in its countable conclusions, and the advantage it provides.

In January, Oats invited Alabama softball coach Patrick Murphy to speak to his team about the concept of “Mudita” — unselfish joy. Pleasure in others’ triumphs. “It really changed our season,” Sears said Saturday, but it’s also a framing device. A way to interpret the success achieved by data underpinning the entire operation. Or a way to encourage those who might not understand the trends will work for them, eventually.

“You stay true to our offense — we push, we run, we put up the right shots — and you play the numbers,” Alabama forward Grant Nelson said. “Ultimately, it comes together.”

Nate Oats has not always calculated properly.

Former Crimson Tide player Darius Miles was charged with capital murder in the Jan. 15, 2023 death of Jamea Harris, and at a bond hearing in February, a law enforcement officer testified that Miles texted then-Alabama star Brandon Miller to bring Harris’ gun to the scene. During a regularly scheduled in-season news conference, Oats said that Miller was in the “wrong spot at the wrong time,” which drew enough outrage nationally that he apologized for the phrasing hours later. “This entire time I’ve tried to be thoughtful in my words relative to this tragic incident, and my statements came across poorly,” Oats said in a statement. Miller was not and has not been charged with a crime.

The Alabama coach then also took the blame for Miller continuing to do a “pat-down” during pregame introductions following the bond hearing testimony. “We as the adults in the room should have been more sensitive to how it could have been interpreted,” Oats said then. “I dropped the ball. That’s it, I dropped the ball on it. I can assure you it won’t happen again.”

That 2022-23 group, with future No. 2 NBA Draft pick Miller as its leading scorer, became the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. It then fell to San Diego State in the Sweet 16, which meant falling into line with all the other iterations of Alabama men’s basketball teams that conceived of history but never made it.

This season, Oats replaced his entire primary coaching staff — all three left for head coaching jobs elsewhere — and returned a little more than a quarter of the minutes played and the points scored. Now he’s done what no Alabama coach has done before. With 16.9 seconds left Saturday, Pannone — a former high school coach himself — left his seat on the bench and put an arm around his boss and delivered a resounding message.

“Wasn’t that long ago you were at Romulus High School,” Pannone told Oats. “Look at you now.”

Oats smiled. Moments later, he exhorted Estrada to prevent Clemson from rolling the ball up the floor in a game Alabama was more or less guaranteed to win.

But this is who Alabama hired. Someone who’s meticulous. Obsessed. The guy who wonders why there was a defensive breakdown on a meaningless late Clemson layup. The guy who stares at the box score and stat sheets and circles numbers and does the math while his players answer postgame questions from the dais on Saturday. Who can reference points per possession in various scenarios shortly thereafter and defend how his team made history.

The guy who, in a lot of ways, should and shouldn’t be here.

“When I was a kid — I’m going to date myself — you had VHS tapes,” Oats said. “I had every one of those ‘One Shining Moments’ labeled on a VHS tape so I could go back and watch that thing all summer. Then you start to grow up in the coaching profession and you just want to be at the Final Four, be in the hotel lobby, so I can see the big-name coaches that are there. Somehow, I caught enough breaks that I’m coaching in one. Which is unreal.”

He said it hadn’t truly hit him yet. He did want confirmation that UConn, the team run by another former high school coach in Dan Hurley, his team’s opponent in the 2024 national semifinals, went on a 30-0 spree in an Elite Eight win over Illinois earlier in the day.

Oats was told that, yes, this was the case.

He declared it to be unheard of. He smiled.

“His formula is working out pretty well,” Oats said. “I’m going to have to figure out that formula myself here soon.”

(Top photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)



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