TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Hailing from Watertown, Wis., Alabama basketball coach Nate Oats grew up as a follower of the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA.
Growing up in the small town, Oats quickly grew to enjoy watching the Bucks play. While his team’s first and only title was in 1971 — three years before Oats was born — it’s safe to say as a current head coach of a Power Five school, watching his Bucks had an impact on his basketball upbringing.
Years later, Oats is using the Bucks as an example to his Crimson Tide who is poised to not only enter next week’s SEC Tournament as a 1-seed thanks to winning the regular-season conference title but also make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament as a 2-seed.
In the 2019-2020 season, Milwaukee finished as the top team in the Eastern Conference with a record of 56-17. The Bucks were widely regarded as one of the top favorites to win the NBA title. However, with COVID-19 delaying the end of the season and a bubble being formed to protect the players, the team returned looking lackadaisical. While the team was able to win the first round of the playoffs over the Orlando Magic, the Bucks fell 4-1 to the Miami Heat in the Conference Semifinals.
On Monday during an interview with “The Paul Finebaum Show,” Oats used the Bucks’ failures last season to illustrate how he doesn’t want his team to suffer the same fate.
“This is not the NBA, but you look at the NBA bubble,” Oats said on the radio program. “I think the Bucks had the best record coming in, and they kind of coasted into the playoffs a bit and maybe rested some guys. I don’t want to do that these last two games. I want to push hard and get back to our main group playing as hard and as well as they can be playing. Let’s go 1-0 against Auburn, and let’s not even worry about Georgia until Auburn is done.
“I think if you get that mindset, the end result will take care of itself.”
Alabama completed a season sweep of Auburn in Coleman Coliseum on Tuesday night in its final home game of the season. Prior to the game, Oats emphasized that he wants his team to take a 1-0 approach to each and every game that it plays for the rest of the season. After falling big at Arkansas last Wednesday after his team was overwhelmed by outside pressure and influences, Oats has been trying to batten down the hatches and ensure that his team remains focused on its current task — winning.
In his press conference on Friday, Oats expressed that he hadn’t used the Bucks as an example to his team. Additionally, he expressed a mild form of regret that he has used the NBA team as an example.
“I haven’t used it with them at all,” Oats said. “Maybe I wish I wouldn’t have said that because I actually love the Bucks — I grew up in Wisconsin, that’s the team I like to follow. I think they play well; I was just a little disappointed that they were the best team before the bubble and then it seemed like maybe they were resting some guys or trying to make sure they were ready to go for the playoffs and it kinda seemed like they lost a little bit of their rhythm maybe.”
Rhythm is everything in basketball late in the season. Too often do talented teams peak early, causing a late-season collapse and ultimately leaving coaches, players and fans disappointed. For Alabama, that potential still remains. The Crimson Tide takes on the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday in the team’s final game of the regular season. While Alabama made quick of Georgia in their last meeting by a margin of 115-82, the Crimson Tide struggled on defense.
Nowadays, it’s the offense that’s struggling. While the defense put together an impressive outing on Tuesday against Auburn, Alabama’s offense has continued to struggle to find rhythm from beyond the three-point line — something that was one of its strengths at the start of SEC play.
To Oats, losing rhythm is the last thing that he wants to see. On Friday, he emphasized the importance of rhythm and taking the remainder of the season one game at a time.
“I think we have to be in a rhythm playing well as a team,” Oats said. “We could go into the Georgia game — you know, in all purposes it’s what you maybe would say is a meaningless game because it’s not going to decide who wins the regular season — we’re already the No. 1 seed — but I don’t think it’s meaningless. I think we need to get back to playing well. The last time we played well on offense was that game but we didn’t play good on defense so we haven’t had any great game on both sides of the ball here in a while so if we could do that going into SEC Tournament play I think that’d be the best.
“So yeah, just more of the point of let’s not coast into tournament play in March. This season, we’ve got three games guaranteed left — anywhere from three to 10 depending on how well it goes so let’s make sure we’re playing every last game we’ve got left in the season to the full capability of this team.”
While Alabama basketball and the Milwaukee Bucks are in two entirely different leagues of basketball, Oats is taking the Bucks’ example and does not plan on his team becoming complacent. In fact, he intends to do just the opposite.
Learning from the Bucks, Oats has no intention of resting his players in order to regain some momentum. Instead, he hopes that they can find their rhythm with a win at Georgia on Saturday (1 p.m. CT, CBS).
“I’d like to close out the regular season well,” Oats said. “We’re not trying to rest guys or do any of that. We’re trying to get on a roll. We’ve got six days between games — we won’t play until the following Friday — so we’re gonna play our guys. We’re gonna try to get in a little bit of a rhythm, get into a little bit of a groove heading into tournament play.”