Alabama leaned on analytics, tradition to reach Final Four

Nate Oats had the No. 1 team in the nation for a significant portion of the 2022-23 season before a letdown in the NCAA Tournament sent Alabama home from Louisville and San Diego State to a regional f

Alabama leaned on analytics, tradition to reach Final Four

Nate Oats had the No. 1 team in the nation for a significant portion of the 2022-23 season before a letdown in the NCAA Tournament sent Alabama home from Louisville and San Diego State to a regional final.

This year, the Crimson Tide were cast as more of a rebuilding team, picked fifth in the Southeastern Conference in the preseason after NBA lottery pick Brandon Miller exited and Oats began the season with four transfers, five freshmen and three new starters.

With homegrown point guard Mark Sears as the on-court pilot, Oats, whose third contract at Alabama was approved in February, helped the team stay the course. While they lost 11 games along the way, Alabama found all the right ingredients to help the Crimson Tide advance to the Final Four for the first time in program history.

“They counted us out, really, from the very first game,” said guard Aaron Estrada, a Hofstra transfer who had 10 points, eight rebounds and five assists against Clemson in the regional final. “And like I said, I’ve been doubted like my whole life, under-recruited, looked upon. And I think that it just added more fuel to everybody really.”

Since Oats arrived in 2019 after a 32-win season at Buffalo, he wanted the cornerstones of the program foundation to include Alabama tradition — a football school through and through — by using now-retired coach Nick Saban as a resource.

“I went and watched practices. I sat in on staff meetings. I shadowed him for a day. I went on road trips with him to see how they operated. I tried to learn as much as I could. It never nagged me or bothered me that football was huge at Alabama. I loved it. It’s better for recruiting. It’s better for everything for us,” Oats said. “I tried to learn from it. And different people would make comments. Football, football. But only 18 national championships behind them. We have a few to catch up. Let’s just keep grinding. Let’s get to a Final Four first, and let’s put ourselves on a big stage.”

The big stage — State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. — awaits Saturday night. Oats and Alabama beat Clemson 89-82 in the regional final to set up a national semifinal meeting with defending champion UConn, and got there in what even some opponents considered “inefficient” or bizarre philosophical baselines on offense.

Oats’ teams always loved shooting 3s — from his high school successes in Detroit to the University of Buffalo — but he’s all but eliminated 2-point shot attempts that aren’t at the rim. It’s not traditional, but it’s effective.

“We’ve got some different options to get efficient shots. They don’t always have to come flying up and down taking quick 3s,” Oats said. “Quick 3s are efficient, if you get them from the right shooters. There’s other efficient shots too. We’ve got different packages to get efficient shots. Guys come in the summer. We teach them how to play efficient. We don’t eliminate inefficient shots from their arsenal right away. I don’t want guys second-guessing themselves. We gradually educate them as to how to be the most efficient player. Brandon Miller became pretty efficient (and) moved from, like, projected 23rd pick in the draft to the second pick in the draft.”

Oats hired and brought with him to the first four NCAA Tournament games an outside analytics firm, a third-party outfit he said studies game situations and results and helps the Crimson Tide understand the how and why of their system.

“I think you can win playing this way. They win playing this way in the NBA. We’ve just proven you can make a Final Four run,” Oats said, applauding Alabama’s 10-of-15 shooting from 3-point range in the second half against Clemson. “And you know what, UConn is a pretty good team and they play similar. They play through the post a lot, but Danny is big on offensive efficiency, playing the right way, getting the right shots. Their defense is a lot better than ours. We have to figure how to beat them. But I think more college teams are starting to play more efficient style basketball like we’ve been playing.”