TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It's been almost nine months since the University of Alabama basketball program has stepped onto the hardwood.
Back in March, the Crimson Tide had its first-round game in the Southeastern Conference tournament with Tennessee canceled abruptly due to the emergence of COVID-19.
When Alabama walked out of Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, distraught and disappointed, no one knew when they would suit up again exactly, but here we are.
We have reached the day before Thanksgiving and Alabama is set to kick off year two of the Nate-Oats era against Jacksonville State at 7 p.m (CT) on the SEC Network.
“This is the longest I’ve practiced without a game, scrimmage or anything in my career,” Oats said to local reporters via Zoom on Tuesday. “It's finally here. It's been a long time coming.
"We’re ready to play and excited, regardless of how many people are in the stands or all the other stuff that’s going on. This is what we practice for. So we’re excited. I thought we’ve had good practices. We told the guys after we finished today, ‘We got the full 30 in.’ A lot of programs around the country haven’t been able to get their full 30 practices in. We have. We’ve been fortunate in that regard."
The Crimson Tide is coming off a 16-15 (8-10 SEC) season where it finished ninth in the conference, but that record doesn't tell the whole story of the first campaign with Oats at the helm.
Oats' blue-collar, fast-paced system allowed Alabama to rank third nationally in points per game at 82, first in the SEC in three-point percentage (34.9) and three-pointers made (334).
Even losing guard Kira Lewis Jr. to the NBA draft a week ago when he was selected 13th overall by the New Orleans Pelicans, the Crimson Tide has tons of offensive firepower coming back for the 2020-2021 season.
For starters, the top two returning scorers in the SEC belong to Alabama with senior guard and preseason All-SEC First Team selection John Petty Jr. (14.5 ppg) and sophomore guard Jaden Shackelford (15.0 ppg).
With the return of senior wing and preseason All-SEC Second Team selection Herb Jones, who was named to the All-SEC Defensive Team a season ago, and addition of Yale transfer Jordan Bruner, who provides a lot of versatility on both ends of the floor, the Crimson Tide will be much-improved defensively.
Lewis' replacement in the starting lineup will be guard Jahvon Quinerly, the former five-star recruit, McDonald's All-American, and Villanova transfer, who missed all of last season due to the NCAA denying his wavier to play immediately.
Senior forward Alex Reese is the only other returnee with meaningful playing experience, who is coming off a junior campaign that saw 8.8 points and 4.8 rebounds each time out.
Two players that missed all of last year, due to preseason-ACL tears, are big man James Rojas and forward Juwan Gary. Rojas has been fully cleared, but Gary is on the brink of returning to game action according to Oats.
He could see limited action on Wednesday night against the Gamecocks, but if not, it appears likely he'll be ready for the Maui Invitational.
The rest of Oats' roster includes a top-ten recruiting class with the likes of former five-star guard Josh Primo, JUCO All-American Keon Ellis, forward Keon Ambrose-Hylton, and wing Darius Miles.
What can fans expect from this squad in Oats' second year?
“This is a team that is fast-paced, running and gunning team,” Petty said. “We’ve got depth in shooting. We've got at least five or six guys on our team that can shoot the cover off the ball. We’ve got point guards that can handle the ball, facilitate it. I feel like we’ve got bigs that can do something in the paint. I feel like our team and our expectations are very high and we’re ready. We're real ready ...
"The ceiling is very high for this team.”
Alabama is currently ranked No. 25 in the preseason coaches poll and is receiving enough votes to be at No. 29 in the Associated Press Poll. The Crimson Tide was picked to finish fifth in the SEC.
It's very rare in the Yellowhammer State that the Alabama program is receiving this much hype just three days before the Iron Bowl.
But under Oats, that excitement and buzz is only expected to grow for a program that is looking to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years and only third time in the last 14.
"There’s a lot of basketball fans down here,” Oats said. “They’re just waiting for the team, the program to be something they can get behind. I think we’ve got a team that you can get behind this year. I think they’ll be excited. They know there’s just something about this team that people know. I think we’re feeling it.”
Standing in the Crimson Tide's way first is Jacksonville State, who defeated Alabama in a closed scrimmage two years ago, but lost last year's closed scrimmage.
Oats says he lots of respect for coach Ray Harper and his bunch and that they are looking forward to the challenge of finally playing against someone else rather than beating each other up in practice.
“His teams always play hard and they’re always great on the offensive boards. We’ve been harping on our team that we’re going to have to really rebound the ball. They’ve got some real interior players,” Oats said last week. “They struggled to shoot the ball last year but they’ve added some real shooters. I think they’re going to be one of the better teams in their league and they’re going to give us a really good game, in my opinion.
"It will be a good test for us coming out.”