Everything Nate Oats said Friday ahead of Round of 32 matchup vs. Maryland
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Alabama basketball is gearing up for its second match as the top overall seed in the 2023 NCAA Tournament, which is set for Saturday night at 8:40 p.m. CT at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Ala. On Friday, Crimson Tide head coach Nate Oats spoke to the media ahead of that Round of 32 game against No. 8 seed Maryland.
Here’s everything he said:
Q. Coach, I talked to Nick in the locker room. He’s talked about how he’s changed his free-throw shooting technique. Just how have you seen him improve with that and just improve overall during the course of the season?
NATE OATS: “He had been making them after we kind of helped change it up. Brian works with our bigs. He had him making them at a high clip. He kind of put his hand under it to get the correct. Then I feel like we had him doing more of the one-handed stuff, and he kind of had this side spin where he had both thumbs in. You take the other hand off, it takes the thumbs out of the situation.
“He had been making them. Hopefully we make them better than 3 of 7. If he could have made one more free throw than he had in the 2015 game — 19, 15 is still pretty impressive.
“Happy with the way Nick plays. I think Brian does a great job with our bigs. They need to make some free throws for us, though. In practice today, we’ll make sure to get the free throws in.”
Q. This is kind of a deja vu because you guys played Maryland in the second round of the tournament two years ago. They have a couple players still up on their roster. You guys have Jahvon Quinerly from that team. What do you remember from that game? Are you using anything to teach your team about Maryland this year?
NATE OATS: “Definitely remember it. That was a lot different. That was in the bubble. They had different coaching staffs. The style of play is different. But it is Maryland, and they do have some players that were still there.
“So we did refer back to that game in referencing some of their players, Donta Scott, very good player. Quinerly remembers.
“We shot the ball really well that game, if I remember correctly. I haven’t gone back and watched it just because, with the short turnaround, there’s enough stuff I need to look at with the current coaching staff and current roster. I haven’t watched that game, but if my memory serves me correct, we shot it really well and opened it up.
“It would be great if we shot it that well this time. They’re a really good defensive team. They’re a really well coached team. Coach Willard has done a great job. Some of the players they currently have who played in the last game are tough.
“There’s not a whole lot that you can take away from that, but it is ironic that two years later we get them in the second round again.”
Q. Two questions about Nick. When yesterday happens, I know he’s been a huge spark plug off the bench. Is that just something you’re glad to see him do? When you were recruiting him from Dodge City, is that something you hoped you would be able to do when he got to Alabama?
NATE OATS: “When we recruited him, we thought he could be an athletic kind of go with Charles, a little different, Charles is great at protecting the rim, Nick is super athletic, switchable. We haven’t used him as much in switching one through five, but we kind of — I mean, he’s been good. He’s gotten a lot better playing against Charles every day in practice.
“He’s got three years still because the one year he had played was the COVID year. So we still have him for two years after this. I think he’s going to be great. He’s got pretty good skill. He plays really hard. He’s athletic.
“I was really happy to see him play well in an NCAA Tournament game because there’s been games where he hasn’t played much at all. He’s gotten frustrated, as all really good players would, without playing a lot, but he’s handled it well. He’s just kept getting better.
“Happy to see him play. Happy to be able to rest Charles a little bit. Hopefully we can build on that, get some confidence going, so when we need him, he’s got a lot of confidence to play well for us.”
Q. Want to ask an update on Brandon injury-wise, and what’s the confidence level going forward that he’s going to be, even tomorrow for fans, full force?
NATE OATS: “Clarke, our trainer, I think is the best trainer in the business, me and him talked about it today. He’s getting treatment already this morning. He got it last night. He’s going to get a lot more this afternoon. We’re holding him out of anything live in practice today, not that we’re doing a whole lot of live stuff with the game yesterday and one tomorrow. He’ll shoot and do some non-live stuff.
“I think he’s going to be all right. He seemed like he was moving all right. It obviously bothered him. He didn’t shoot it particularly well, but he seemed like he was moving decent. So he’s just got to get his confidence back that he could play with it.
“Hopefully all the non-live stuff he does today in practice, he can get to where he’s moving well, shooting it well, and then be ready to go. It obviously wasn’t one of his better games to open, but I think knowing Brandon and how tough he is, physically, mentally, I think he’ll be ready to go tomorrow.”
Q. Kevin Willard said this is the most talented team that he’s seen since Kentucky in the mid-90s in terms of being long and athletic and good point guard play. What do you remember about that team from watching them, and what do you think of that comparison?
NATE OATS: “Kevin’s been around basketball a long time. His dad was a great coach coming up. I haven’t heard that comparison. I’ve gotten to know Coach Pitino a little bit, playing them last year. Shoot, that was a really talented team.
“Thanks for the comparison. I don’t know if I should be saying thanks. That’s a lot of pressure on you, too. That team was good. I’d like to know how many pros were on that team. Mid-90s Kentucky, is that Ron Mercer, if I remember right, Antoine Walker? They had some NBA All Stars on that team.
“We definitely have some depth to us, I can say that. I don’t know if — was it seven or eight guys that went to the NBA from that Kentucky team? I don’t know if we have that. I hope we do. That would be great for our players if we have that many who’d be able to play in the NBA.
“That was back when I was really getting into basketball. I graduated high school in ’93, so that would have been when I was in college watching a ton of basketball and remembering all those games.
“About our current team, we’re deep, we’re long, we’re athletic. We definitely have multiple point guards in Quinerly, Bradley, and Mark Sears can play it, and you can move Brandon to the point, too. So thanks for the comparison. I think he’s also trying to talk our team up. I don’t know if we’re quite that good, so we’ll see.
“He’s got a really good team, too, and he’s done an unbelievable job since he took over that program and just their toughness. I mean, they’re good. So we’re going to have to play — I’ll say this. We’re going to have to play a lot better on the defensive end tomorrow than we did yesterday.”
Q. Talking to some of the players in the locker room, there was a sentiment that the one thing that stuck out about Maryland is their physicality and the physicality of the Big Ten as a whole. Another thing they mentioned was having played Michigan State earlier in the year might have helped prepare your team for this game. Do you feel the same way about that and about Maryland’s physicality?
NATE OATS: “The Big Ten is a physical league. Michigan State, I spent 11 years in Michigan. Went to a ton of Michigan State practices. They’re physical. Tom Izzo, I saw a little video clip of him snapping a white board today. They’re going to bring some intensity to the game if they follow their head coach’s lead a little bit, more than a little bit.
“I think Coach Willard has got some intensity about him, some toughness about him. I think his team has always been tough. They play in a tough league. So we’re going to definitely see a physical team, and I think playing against Michigan State earlier in the year certainly helped with that.
“I’ll tell you what, UConn’s a physical team, too. We played both those teams in the same tournament. Playing both those teams, I think, helps with seeing a physical team. Tennessee in our league is very physical. It’s not as if the Big Ten’s got all the physical teams in the country on it, but they definitely play a more physical brand of basketball.
“Between Michigan State, Tennessee, Texas A&M plays physical. We played some tough, hard-nosed, physical teams already this year. I think it will be good for us in preparation for this game.”
Q. Kelvin Sampson has told us about your relationship. It goes back to when he recruited one of your players when you were in high school coaching in Detroit. Obviously you all are on opposite sides of the bracket, and you’ve got your own stuff to worry about. Do you guys maybe even share anything about his match-up tomorrow with Auburn? If not, maybe do you give him any advice to maybe woo in some Alabama fans that will be rolling into the arena early tomorrow that will probably be rooting for the Cougs?
NATE OATS: “Listen, Kelvin is one of the best coaches in all of college basketball. He’s been that. When I was a high school coach, shoot, he’s Washington State, Oklahoma, I remember. I think there was a video out on his kind of four high offense at Oklahoma. He’s great. He’s got videos out on all of his competitive drills. I read them all.
“So I was fortunate enough to become friends with him. Nowhere near the coach he is yet, but I’ve got a little ways to go yet. He’s got a few years on me.
“We have not talked about Auburn. You typically make it a practice not to share scouts and all that on teams within your league. You like your league to do well. You pull for SEC teams. Obviously I’m a little torn on this because I have a relationship with Coach Sampson. We play them throughout the year. They’re tough. They’re physical. They play a great brand of basketball.
“I go to the Final Four every year. Last time it was in Houston, I went over and visited with him and their staff and just talked basketball, tried to learn from him, learned a lot. He was gracious enough to share with me, you know, a young coach.
“So he’s been great to me. I’m going to pull for him most games, every time we’re not playing them. This one, I’m a little torn here. But you’re probably right. I’m sure there will probably be some Roll Tide fans cheering for them. Probably some Roll Tide fans cheering for the SEC, too. I don’t know which way it will go.
“I would like it if during our game, we could get all the SEC fans cheering for the SEC team in the game.”
Q. I know you play in the SEC. What does Maryland look like in the SEC? Do they look like a familiar team that you see a lot in the SEC, or are they different?
NATE OATS: “They’re a little different, but I’m going to be honest with you. They’re tough. They’re physical. They don’t play nearly as fast as we do. You think about the tougher, more physical, hard-nosed teams in the SEC, Tennessee comes to mind. They play — they actually run some similar actions at Tennessee, too, to be honest with you.
“Texas A&M doesn’t do it the same as they do necessarily defensively, but they’re both kind of tough, physical teams. I know A&M didn’t play one of their better games last night. But they’ve been pretty good all year, at least in conference play.
“And Mississippi State’s one a little bit. They’ve got a good big that they kind of play a little bit more inside-out. That way with Mississippi State. But there’s definitely some teams in our league that you can compare them to. There’s no two teams exactly the same anyways. We see a pretty good blend of basketball in the SEC now with different style of coaches. Some play faster, some play more slow. Some pound it inside more. Some are more — Missouri’s obviously more perimeter oriented, play a little bit more like us, wide open, shoot a lot of threes.
“But there’s plenty of teams in our league now that play similar to Maryland. I think those are a few of them.”
Q. You mentioned Brandon’s mental toughness. How have you seen him handle the enormity of everything that’s gone on this year?
NATE OATS: “He’s a really good kid that I think has done a really good job of handling a heartbreaking situation that we — it’s very tough. We’ve seen him show his mental toughness throughout the year. I think we’ve all seen it.”
Q. Two quick ones, if I can. On Brandon, if he is limited in any way, how does that limit you?
NATE OATS: “He’s obviously been our most talented, best player all year. If he’s not able to go at a hundred percent, he’s probably still a pretty good player at 75, 80 percent. Hopefully we can get him playing better than he did yesterday.
“You know, he told me in the second half, if you don’t need to put me back in, don’t put me back in, it’s hurting. So I didn’t. But I think he’s smart enough to know if he can go or not and help us. If he can’t, the good thing about our team is we’ve got a lot of depth. Nimari Burnett played great yesterday. He’s not 6’9″, but he’s got a 6’9” wingspan. He’s been great on defense. He did an unbelievable job, as we talked about, in Houston. He did a great job on Sasser when we won at Houston.
“Rylan Griffen has been playing great for us. We do have long, athletic wings, not as long as Brandon. We can also go a little smaller. When we beat Auburn at our place, we’re down 17 with 9:30 to go in that game. We went with Jahvon Quinerly, Mark Sears, and Jaden Bradley lineup. Kind of spread them all out, went with all three guards, and rode with it through that in overtime.
“So we’ve got different options. Pray we don’t have to go to all those. I hope he’s good enough and healthy enough to play based on how much work him and Clark are putting in, I think he will. But it definitely would limit us. Shoot, he might be the best player in the country. It would be nice if we had him.”
Q. I’m guessing Maryland is going to try to keep this thing to 58 possessions or something. How do you impose your pace and do it your way?
NATE OATS: “It’s definitely going to be a battle of tempo. They’d like it to be slower. We’d like it to be faster. They’ve got a press that they use that if you attack it the right way, I think it can speed the game up. If you don’t, it can slow the game down. They’re going to press in a way that slows the game down, and we’re going to try to attack the press in a way that speeds the game up.
“I’ll say this. We’re not a team that plays fast based on pressing and gambling on defense. That’s not how we do it. We stay solid on defense. If you want to milk the shot clock and you want to end up in the last eight, ten seconds of the shot clock every time down and want to take a tough shot, we’re content with letting you do that because we feel like — we looked at all the numbers. We’ve got analytics and all that. The later it gets in the shot clock, the worse your efficiency gets. So we’re content with teams playing late in the shot clock with us on defense.
“We’re not going to gamble and give you something easy just to speed the game up on defense.
“So teams are able to slow it down on their offensive end maybe a little bit more, but when we get a rebound, we’re out, and we’re trying to score in the first six seconds on the clock as long as it’s a good shot. So we’re going to keep the pace as much as we can going our way on offense without doing anything different on defense.
“So we play Missouri, we end up with 85 possessions. We play a team like Maryland that wants to play really slow, I hope it’s not 55, but somewhere in the middle. If we could be 70, we’d be all right.
“We’re definitely trying to play fast. They’re trying to play slow. It’s going to probably, to be honest with you, meet somewhere in the middle on this one.”
Q. We’ve seen teams like Furman and Princeton pull off upsets in the first round. Is there anything you’re sharing with your players about keeping your mentality going especially when you’re playing lower seeds?
NATE OATS: “It wasn’t that long ago when I was at Buffalo and we were the underdog. We were a 14 seed playing a 3 seed in Arizona. We were — obviously our last year there, we were 6 seed.
“My first year when we made the tournament — I think we were 13 when we played Arizona as a 4. We were 14 my first year when we played Miami. So we’ve been on the other side of this. We try to tell them what the mentality of the other side. They’re kind of in a no lose situation.
“They’re going to play loose. Shots are going to go in. They’ve got nothing to lose. That’s how we were.
“So we’ve got to play hard. We’re not trying to put any extra added pressure on. I’m sure they’ve got enough pressure. We want our guys to play as loose as they can. Yeah, I mean, shoot, they’re watching games. I was hanging out with them. They’ve got their phones out watching the end of — it’s March Madness. Everybody that’s a basketball fan is glued to a TV set.
“Shoot, when I was a teacher, I made sure those were the days we had worksheets to do so I could leave the TV on. Everybody’s watching these games. Our players are watching them. They’re in the locker room right there, we had games on. They all watched the end of the Xavier-Kennesaw State game.
“It’s a great time of year to be a basketball fan. We’re fully aware there’s upsets. We told our guys, we’re going to be the favorite team. If you’re the Number 1 overall seed, you’re supposed to win every game out. Well, we go through how you give up upsets. You give up uncontested threes. You let teams score in transition on you. You give up second chance points.
“We lost the second chance battle yesterday. We talk about margin plays, second chance points, transition points, points at the free-throw line. We didn’t do a great job winning the margin games yesterday. We’ve got to do a lot better job of that tomorrow. So we talked to the team about a lot of that stuff.”
Q. Coach, you’ve got a unique situation tomorrow, both Auburn and Alabama back-to-back two games in the second round. Auburn plays first. The fans could stay. Maryland is trying to recruit the Auburn fans, saying we’d love for them to root for them, against you guys. Do you anticipate that, being in this state?
NATE OATS: “Some will, I’m sure. They can’t help themselves. It is what it is.
“I’ll say this. For our league, I told you, I’m pulling for the SEC. I want the SEC teams to do well. I think we need it for our league. I think NCAA Tournament success bodes well for the league. Our league, the basketball in the SEC has got significantly better here lately. We’ve got a lot of pros coming out of this league. We play a great brand of basketball. We need to get some NCAA Tournament success.
“Hopefully they’re smart enough to know that they should be pulling for the SEC. What’s good for the SEC is good for Alabama. What’s good for the SEC is good for Auburn.
“So Roll Tide. Let’s cheer for the SEC teams. But some people can’t help themselves, I’m sure.”