Culture change surrounding Crimson Tide basketball already noticeable

Christopher Walsh

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It’s different. A lot different. Not just in terms of style of play and personnel, but even culturally.

After four years at Buffalo, Nate Oats has been on the job as the new head coach of Alabama basketball for exactly three months, meaning we’re midway from the start of the 2019-20 season. The schedule hasn’t even been announced, yet the feeling surrounding the program has been palpable.

The locations involved help demonstrate the contrast, as about the only things that Alabama and Buffalo have in common are both are part of the United States. People in Tuscaloosa have no concept of what lake-effect wind and snow is like, just like those there are clueless about summer in the Deep South.

Oats is being reminded of that this week as he’s back in upstate New York helping his family pack for its move south this weekend. What took so long? School just wrapped up, more than a month after it did so in his new home.

“Their work ethic has been really good,” Oats said about his new team. “You see guys want to get better.”

It’s nothing against his predecessors, but Oats has been nothing short of a breath of fresh air for Crimson Tide basketball. There’s a buzz around the program in June. The roster is completely full, which is something Alabama has struggled with for years, and even though everyone hasn’t arrived on campus yet the team is already being hailed as top-25 quality.

That’s also without knowing if former 5-star guard Jahvon Quinerly will be able to suit up this season after transferring from Villanova. Oats acknowledged during the SEC coaches’ summer teleconference with reporters on Thursday that the NCAA recently tightening the waiver rules might hurt his chances. The coach is still optimistic, but simply doesn’t know.

If Quinerly can’t go, he can’t go. Alabama will press forward.

That’s the mentality Oats wants, speed bumps be dammed. That and the style of play are what have attracted so many players, including those already on the roster who were ready to head out of town after last season, so quickly.

“Tempo,” junior guard Herb Jones said is the biggest difference so far. “It’s a lot faster.

“It’s fun.”

With Alabama able to take advantage of rule changes allowing for some practices during the offseason, Oats didn’t waste any time getting the Crimson Tide acclimated to its new approach.

Last week the media was invited to watch part of what may have been the lightest workout the players have gone through so far. After holding practices in tandem with the Crimson Tide clinics, which on some days meant two four-hour workouts, the session didn’t include any transition work.

“We didn’t want to kill them,” Oats quipped.

Only the players aren’t complaining about the grueling summer practices, just the opposite. As recruits they had seen first-hand how hard other programs worked, and what it took to play as the highest levels. Besides, they couldn’t count how many times they saw a game get away from them in the second half over the past couple of seasons.

When re-recruiting them, Oats had only promised that they would work hard and win games through that effort. He also showed them some video of Buffalo running opponents off the floor in a way Alabama had been failing to do.

“The first workout, I’m not going to lie, was tough,” junior guard John Petty Jr. said. “Everyone was winded. It was like a few days after he got the job, we did a work out, and it was new to everyone. We didn’t really how fast he wanted us to play until we started working out with him.

“But I think everyone adjusted well.”

The early indications have been all positive.

For example, Alabama regularly runs a drill it calls the NBA 100, which is shooting the corresponding number of 3-pointers. It’s a standard workout exercise that scouts and league officials do while evaluating prospects.

The first time he went through it, Jones, who really struggled with his shooting last season and was just 6-for-21 (.286) from beyond the arc, scored 44. Last week his total was up to 59.

Take it for what it’s worth considering the guard had no defenders in his face, but already his confidence is on another level.

“It’s a huge goal,” he said.

One could go down the roster and find something similar with just about everyone, so Oats did.

Junior guard Alex Reese has looked better on the perimeter. Junior forward Galin Smith has been hitting the gym hard. Among the freshmen, guard Jaylen Forbes plays “with a chip on his shoulder” and guard Jaden Shackelford looks physically ready to contribute.

Yet the player who has made the biggest change is easily redshirt freshman center Javian Davis-Fleming, who was very generously listed on last year’s roster as weighing 268 pounds. At times, you might have switched those last two numbers.

He’s down to 248 pounds.

“To be honest, when we first got here, I wasn’t sure he was going to make it,” Oats said. “He was out of shape and I didn’t know if he would make it through the first few practices but he has really done a 180. He’s lost a lot of weight and he works.

“He’s a gym rat, one of the biggest gym rats on our team, and I like that. Plus he can shoot it a little bit.”

Oats was referring to his outside shot, which gives one an idea of what kind of diverse offense the Crimson Tide wants to have.

It was while rattling off some of the various improvements he’s seen when Oats made the following, telling statement:

“I just think the culture’s gotten a lot better over the last two-and-a-half months or so, where guys want to get in on their own because they know they’re going to have the freedom to use what they’re working on in the games,” the coach said. “They weren’t encouraging them to shoot 3s so they weren’t working on them.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well some of the guys have progressed.”

This team is only in its infancy and has yet to have all 13 players practice together. Sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr. is in Greece playing for Team USA in the FIBA U19 World Cup. Graduate transfer Beetle Bolden arrived on campus last Friday (“he doesn’t miss much,” Oats said about the guard’s shooting), and junior James Rojas is still working to be academically eligible.

Even so, there’s already more optimism surrounding it than the Crimson Tide had at any point last season.