As Alabama Heads To NCAA Tournament, Questions Don’t Go Away, But Neither Does Tide’s Resolution

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After rolling with the same five starters for 22 consecutive games during a basketball streak that saw his team climb to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll for the first time in 20 years, the coach of Alabama, Nate Oats, made a change just in time. for March Madness. Before the Crimson Tide took on Mississippi State on Friday in their SEC tournament opener, they tweaked their starting lineup for the first time in nearly three months, inserting guard Mark Sears in place of Jaden. Bradley.

“It wasn’t necessarily a demotion from Jaden because Jaden came to me last night and said he thought I should start Jahvon,” Oats said after Crimson Tide dismantled the Bulldogs with little thought. drama. “That’s the kind of group we have. The guys are ready to do whatever they need to do to help the team be better.”

The story is an example of the conflicting images surrounding an Alabama basketball team expected to be the No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament and among the top favorites to win the national title.

On the one hand, there’s the program marred by the scandal of capital murder charges against former player Darius Miles stemming from the January murder of a woman near the university campus. To research testimony in february linked First-year star forward Brandon Miller and Bradley at the scene, although they have not been charged with any crime and are not considered suspects.

Revelations about Miller’s alleged role in bringing the murder weapon to the scene — and the school’s lack of punishment for it — have made Alabama the scorn of college basketball and created a huge off-court distraction for the SEC regular-season champions.

On the other hand, there’s a team that Oats praised for their selflessness, chemistry and camaraderie, the team that Miller called “family away from home.” It’s the version of Alabama he prefers to project, epitomized by Bradley and others’ willingness to embrace what’s necessary for the team’s success, even at personal cost.

When things changed

Miles played 53 games for Oats over two and a half seasons with the program, but his on-field role was almost non-existent in the first half of the season before he was promptly fired from the team after the shootout. Alabama barely missed a beat without him, winning its next seven SEC games after Miles was arrested by an average of 19.9 points with an outrageous 24-point loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.

Weeks passed, and the shooting story’s role in the national narrative around Alabama basketball faded when the Crimson Tide hit No. 1 on Feb. 13. The following week, things changed. Once Miller, the SEC freshman and a likely lottery pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, was ensnared in controversy, Alabama’s top flight faltered to close out the season regular.

Peppered with critical for its handling of the problem, the Crimson Tide needed overtime to beat lowly South Carolina on the road. They also barely passed Arkansas and Auburn at home after beating both by wider margins on the road before reports of Miller’s presence at the scene of the shooting became public knowledge.

Then came a 67-61 loss at Texas A&M to close out the regular season in which the Crimson Tide played one of their worst offensive games of the season. The weight of the scandal seemed to wreak havoc on the court as Oats and Miller struggled in the public eye.

Oats called Miller’s involvement in the shooting “wrong place, wrong time” and then had to make his point clearwhile Miller continued with a tone-deaf pregame palpation ritual until Oats talked it over with the team.

new normal

But Alabama’s performance at the SEC tournament suggested it’s finding a rhythm on the court and settling into a rhythm with how to deal with the lingering cloud surrounding the program’s handling of an off-court disaster.

After Miller scored 18 points in Alabama’s quarterfinal win over Mississippi State, the Crimson Tide brought him to the main hall interview podium even after the announcement during the game that Miles had been indicted by a grand jury. The second question he faced concerned his own lack of suspension after the shooting.

“With respect, I cannot comment on that,” Miller said.

The next question he and teammate Jahvon Quinerly answered was about how the team reduces turnovers. It was a streak that symbolized the bizarre reality of an elite college basketball team battling amid one of the most sordid scandals in program history.

To complicate matters, in the weeks between filming and the revelations of Miller’s involvement, Oats received a contract extension making him one of the sport’s 10 highest paid coaches, further signaling institutional support for Oats’ leadership amid the crisis.

“As we got the facts of [law enforcement], it was a decision made, based on all the facts we had, with, obviously, my boss, (Alabama athletic director) Greg Byrne; his boss, (Alabama President Stuart) Bell; and the board,” Oats said this week of the decision not to issue suspensions.” … I was comfortable with the decision that was made.”

It’s unclear if SEC officials feel the same way. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey addressed the issue this week, acknowledging he spoke with Byrne on the day of the shooting.

“I don’t share those conversations,” Sankey said. “We have an incredible level of sympathy for the loss of life. It’s a tragedy.”

“Amazing culture”

Alabama’s performance against Mississippi State and against Missouri in Saturday’s 72-61 semifinal victory may have illustrated why Alabama — a school that never reached the Final Four – strongly supported Oats and Miller. Missouri used a 19-5 run late in the first half and early in the second to take a 35-31 lead before Miller and fellow freshman Noah Clowney took control of the game .

The duo combined for Alabama’s next 14 points, immediately turning the contest around in Crimson Tide’s favor and helping them build a comfortable lead which they maintained for the rest of the game.

The play of senior forward Noah Gurley, who scored five points and grabbed four rebounds after going just six minutes in the first half without attempting a shot, also played a key role in the second half.

After being named a three-time All-SoCon winner in three seasons at Furman, Gurley transferred to Alabama for the 2021-22 season and started 14 games while playing within 33 and averaging 18 minutes per contest. This season, with the nation’s No. 4 ranked recruiting class on campus, its role has diminished and its production in all categories is also down.

In Alabama’s last nine games entering the SEC Tournament, Gurley hasn’t played in three of them. In the six games he played, he averaged just 6.7 minutes and scored a total of three points. But in the quarterfinal against Mississippi State, he recorded 21 minutes and scored 11 points, setting the stage for another day of substantial contributions against Missouri in the semifinals.

“It’s bigger than hoops” gurley said the Crimson Tide sports network. “This team is a family. We’ve been through so much. The minutes are small compared to what we’ve been through. There’s nothing negative about me not playing. It’s just that my brothers jumped.”

Criticism of Alabama’s handling of Miller and the aftermath of the shooting that killed 23-year-old mother Jamea Harris isn’t going away, especially as the Crimson Tide prepares to head into the most the sport’s big stage in the NCAA tournament.

Neither does Alabama. The Crimson Tide has regained its form on the court in the SEC tournament with a roster that continues to provide Oats with alternative and pro-Alabama talking points to stave off the tidal wave of criticism caused by the management by the program of an off-field crisis.

“I think he epitomizes our team, to be honest with you,” Oats said of how Gurley has embraced his fluctuating role. “Amazing culture of guys who just care about their teammates.”

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