| MBB/WBB My First Year: Nate Oats on taking 3s, analytics and building defensive culture

Where did coaching at a major-conference job meet your expectations, and where did it diverge from what you thought it would be?

It’s a good question — to be honest with you, there’s probably not a ton of time for reflection with the job (laughs). While you’re doing the job, you’re just figuring out what to do every day.

I’ll say this: At the first staff meeting, I think my (statement) was, not quite sure what you all do, but we’ll figure it all out. My staff meetings at Buffalo were like five or six people. It seems overstaffed, but the longer you’re here, the more you realize there’s a lot more that goes on at a place like this. There are so many more demands. You have to schedule it in so you make sure there’s enough time for you to coach basketball. If you let it, you could make this job 90 percent not basketball coaching. You want to get out there and meet people and build relationships. That’s part of the job. I get that part of the job. Once we started practice, I had to get with my administrative assistant, Rachel (Releford) and say, listen, Rachel, I gotta coach the team here. Unless this is really, really important, and somebody in administration tells me I gotta do this, I think we need to cut everything out here. I need to coach the team.

At Buffalo, there wasn’t nearly as much of that. You have to be a lot more selective with what you do and don’t do at a place like this. But as far as coaching the guys, I don’t think there’s a ton of difference. You go from high school to Buffalo to Alabama, to me it’s still, can you reach the guys? That to me is a one-on-one, personal relationship that’s only built over time. You have to get in the gym to work with them. You have to sit down and do lunch with them. You have to do video sessions with them. You have to text them every night. That, to me, doesn’t change. There wasn’t a big learning curve on actually coaching the players. Guys are going to play hard for you if they trust you and want to play for you. I had to get in here and build a relationship with everybody, and that’s hard to do in a short amount of time, but I think we did a decent job of it.

We got the culture headed in the right direction. We got the playing style in. Now we have to get some depth so we can withstand some injuries. But I like the roster we have, to play the way we want to play a little better.

As much as so much is the same as far as coaching basketball, what was the biggest adjustment going from a program like Buffalo to a program like Alabama?

So many non-basketball-related activities, functions, requirements, whatever you want to call them, that can distract you from actually coaching basketball. You can’t say no to them all. They pay you a lot of money here to be the head basketball coach, and there’s an expectation that comes with that. If you do it all, you’re going to get fired because you’re not going to coach your basketball team. If you don’t do any of it, nobody is going to like you here and you better win an awful lot of games or you’re going to get fired. You have to be really, really great at time management.

In terms of overall Alabama athletics culture, what did you learn about coaching at a place like that?

They expect to win at a high level. Football is obviously setting the bar at the highest level you could possibly set it. I like it. I spent a lot of time over there at football. I still do. Shoot, you go over there, there’s a half-dozen former head coaches. Seven years ago when I’m coaching at Romulus (High School in Michigan), are you going to be able to sit down with Major Applewhite, Butch Jones, Steve Sarkisian? Charlie Strong is in there. Kyle Flood. There’s all these high-major head coaches where you can find out what works and what doesn’t. I like football to begin with. Football is a different animal, but if you can manage and build a culture in football, you can certainly do it in basketball with a smaller number of people.

But it’s not just football. Last spring I’m here, softball is No. 1 in the country at one point. Softball games are sellouts. Gymnastics, I think, leads the country in attendance. There are no professional sports in the state of Alabama. If you’re at Alabama, you are the professional sports. You get so much support. It’s a big deal. There’s a healthy amount of pressure, but there’s not too much pressure where you can’t do your job. I like the healthy amount of pressure. I’m going to put so much pressure on myself anyway, so I don’t mind a little bit of external pressure. I like being at a place where they care about sports, they’re into it, they want you to be successful. And there’s a lot of successful programs you can collaborate with.

What was something you wanted to get in right away from a basketball standpoint, and it worked?

Our tempo. Everybody says they’re going to play fast in the press conference. We said we were going to play fast at Alabama, I think that’s the most efficient way to play on offense, I’m sold on it. But everybody says it. Then 80 to 90 percent of them don’t play that way. You have to be able to give control to the players to play that way, and most coaches aren’t comfortable enough to do that. We got in, we taught the system, we were third in the country in scoring, we were fourth in tempo, we were No. 1 in the country in 3-point rate. Everybody talks about pace and space. Well, we did it better than anybody else in high-major basketball this year. We talked about doing it, and that’s what we did.

This year we have to turn our focus to defense. Obviously we have a lot of new players. We have to keep the offense rolling in the right direction but we have to get a lot better defensively. At Buffalo our last year, we were 21st in offensive efficiency and 31st defensively. We were terrible on defense this year. Part of it was our injuries, part of it was I didn’t do a good job coaching it, part of it was our personnel — we wanted to play so many guards because of our offensive system, but we had on the floor sometimes Kira Lewis at 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-2, Beetle Bolden at 6-foot, Jaden Shackleford at 6-foot-2 and John Petty at 6-foot-5 playing the four. It’s not a recipe to being a great defensive team, with that little size on the floor in the SEC.

We need to get bigger guards, bigger wings. We did that. So I think our defense will come up. Plus we’re going to spend a lot more time focusing on it.

Are you good with the number of 3s you guys took? That’s how you want it to look long-term?

For the most part. I don’t want us taking bad 3s. When we get a paint touch, out points per possession go up almost 0.4 points per possession. The ideal 3 is a paint-touch-kickout-3. If we’re getting those types of shots, I really don’t care how many we take. We broke the SEC record for 3s made in a game at Auburn. Now, take it with a grain of salt — we started that game down 16-zip, so when you’re giving them a 16-point head start you’re going to have to shoot a few 3s.

I don’t want to be known as a one-trick pony. That’s not it. But we’re not going to take long 2s. I’d rather take a 3 than a long 2. I’m a big analytics guy. The numbers don’t lie. That’s what you need to take, so we’re going to take them.

On defense, what are you going to work on and change? What can you do to make a leap?

The biggest thing is we needed to get bigger guards. We need to play multiple guards with our offensive system. We played the multiple guards last year — they were just too small. Now we’ve got (freshman) Josh Primo, as a 6-foot, 6-inch combo guard. We have (junior college transfer) Keon Ellis as a 6-foot, 5-inch two-guard. We have Darius Miles, a freshman who’s a 6-foot, 7-inch wing. We’ve got (grad transfer) Jordan Bruner, who is 6-foot-9 and really athletic and can switch everything. If you really want to be great on defense, you get guys who can guard multiple positions and you can switch more. We’re going to do more switching, we’re going to play bigger guards, we’re going to be a little bit more aggressive in our ball-screen coverage whether it’s with switches or get the offense reacting to us rather than us always reacting to the offense.

Some of that’s personnel. A lot of it is, we just need to get our system in. If you look at our defensive numbers at Buffalo, we got significantly better from Year 1 to Year 4. Obviously there’s going to be time involved in getting the right personnel and teaching them the way we want to play.

Why do you think you could marry that tempo and the efficient defense at Buffalo that last year, and what elements are translatable to Alabama?

There’s two big reasons. They’re both translatable. We had tough, physical guards with size and athleticism and bigs who could switch and stay in front. Nick Perkins was big and tough and physical, but he could switch and stay in front of any point guard we played (at Buffalo). And then second is we built a culture over time. Guys took the defensive end serious. They knew what it took. We had a winning culture on the defensive end, really.

You better be able to replicate both at this level, or it’s not going to work. We’re already getting the roster looking a lot more like we want it to, to play the way we do. We just have to do a better job building the culture. Everybody talks about culture, but it’s true. Culture is, what do the guys expect? What do you tolerate? It came a long way last year, but it still has a long way to go. By my sixth year at Buffalo, that culture was night and day from when we got there. I hope it doesn’t take six years to do it here, because they probably don’t have that much patience. But hopefully by Year 2, it’s looking a lot better than it did in Year 1.

You had three guys testing the NBA Draft waters, and now it’s down to one with John Petty still undecided. Where are things with that?

Petty’s deal that he said the whole time is, if he gets a guarantee in the top 40 to 45, he’s going to stay in. And I would agree with him. He’s got a daughter, he’s got another one on the way, he’s a good dad. If you can make the amount of money you would make in the top 40 to 45, you probably gotta go.

Right now everything is voluntary on the court. He’s on the Zoom meetings with the team. He’s doing some voluntary work here, some back in Huntsville. Ideally, if we knew he was going to be back, he’d have two feet all-in here. It’s just really hard to be that way. He’s still doing interviews all the time with NBA teams. And it’s good for him to go through the process. If he comes back, it’s still good that he gets a lot of feedback. If he comes back, he’s coming back to be a first-round pick. Everything he needs to work on is going to help our team, and part of it is going to equate to winning. If you come back to be a first-round pick, we need to win for you to be a first-round pick. So you need to do everything you can do to make sure we’re winning.

Aug. 3, it kind of stinks to not know until then, because you can’t really replace him. But at this point, you’re just waiting to see what he does.

Jones played through his recovery from a broken wrist last season. (Marvin Gentry / USA Today)
Of the guys who will be back, who do you put at the top of the list as players who need to make a jump for Alabama to get where it wants to go, and what do they need to do to make that jump?

Herb Jones has to, one, stay healthy. Two is, he’s gotta offensively make enough shots to keep people honest. He made one 3 last year. A lot of that was due to him being injured all year. But if Herb Jones can make a 3 on a consistent basis, he’s a 15-year NBA pro, in my opinion. I would put him as the best defender in the country one through five. He’s athletic, long, moves his feet, takes pride in defense, takes charges — he’s everything you want out of a kid as far as doing all of the winning stuff to win basketball games. Even offensively, he’s really talented. Before he broke his wrist against LSU he was leading the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio. He can play the point at 6-foot-8. But he’s gotta get a little bit better offensively for us.

Jaden Shackelford needs to take a huge jump defensively. As good as he was on offense for us, he just was nowhere near good enough for us to win enough games on the defensive end. But he had to play because he’s so talented. He’s a hard-working kid. He’s a great kid. These kids come out of high school, they haven’t had to guard in a system like that. Now he’s got a year under his belt, he knows what’s expected. He knows he has to get better. He wants to get better.

Alex Reese is a big who fits our system because he can make a shot and play on the perimeter a little bit. He’s just got to get more athletic and way better on defense. It’s the same thing as Shack. For our defense to get better, our personnel has to get better individually. Herb is already great. And I’m an analytics guy, so I look at how much better we were with you on the floor than without you. We were 12 points per 100 possessions better with Herb on the floor. Jordan Bruner at Yale? Yale was 18 points better per 100 possessions when Bruner was on the floor. As good as Herb was for us, Bruner was that much better. Obviously, that’s not the SEC, but I think Bruner can really, really help us on both ends of the floor. I know we’re talking returners, but I’m really excited about what Bruner can bring to us.

What did you find you had in Jahvon Quinerly, in his sit-out season? What do you still need to find out?

He’s as crucial to our success this year as anybody on the roster. Him having a year with us, even though he didn’t play a game, was big. He’s going to be much, much better than what anybody thought. Having a freshman year that wasn’t nearly as successful as what he thought it was going to be, sometimes it does a little bit for a kid. Kind of a little wake-up call, if you will. I think he got that. His work ethic has been great. He’s super-talented. I don’t think talent was ever the issue. And I do think playing as fast as we play and as up-and-down as we play is going to be beneficial to him.

Villanova is a big-time program, winning national championships, and they take a bunch of 3s but they don’t play that fast. Quinerly is a guy who’s much better when he’s flying the ball up and down the floor. Now, he’s not as fast as Kira, north-south. But he’s as skilled as Kira and he’s probably as quick as Kira.

Primo is obviously the top guy in terms of incoming recruits. What do you think you have in him, and how difficult is it to gauge that when you’re not with these guys every day?

I haven’t gotten to see him play since he’s got here, because again, it’s all voluntary and I can’t be there. He’s working out on his own with our strength coach and in the gym. He’s got better size than I thought. They say he can really shoot it; when I saw him (in high school), it was the first game he played in a month, he’d broken his finger. From everything everybody’s told us, he’s really shooting the ball well on top of the fact that he’s 6-foot-6 with a really high IQ for the game. When I talked about changing our personnel — if you’re going to play multiple guards, well, it’s a lot better having 6-foot-6 than it is having 6-foot. Primo gives us that guard who can go with Quinerly, that can also play the point when Quinerly is out, that can switch multiple positions, shoot the ball, put it on the floor to make plays, kind of do everything.

When you do the Nate Oats self-evaluation, where do you want to improve the most as a head coach that will translate to more wins?

Holding guys accountable on the defensive end of the floor. I didn’t do a good job of that. That’s why we weren’t good on defense. That’s the bottom line.

Schematically, personnel-wise, all that, is a big deal. I’m going to study it and I have been studying it, and we’re going to get good. But at the end of the day, whatever you hold them accountable for is what they’re going to be good at, and I didn’t do a great job of that.

Alabama’s prospects for an NCAA Tournament run in 2021 will be helped if Petty returns after declaring for the NBA Draft. (Petre Thomas / USA Today)
So how do you figure out, in this weird summer, what you have? Or do you think you have a good idea of how everything fits together?

I don’t think we’re going to have a good answer on that until we start practicing with them. In my mind, I’ve got a great idea of how I think they should fit together. In my mind, how the pieces fit together last year was a lot better than what they actually did.

I think we’re going to be a lot deeper this year, to where we can withstand some injuries. A kid like (freshman) Keon Ambrose. Is he going to be strictly a four? Can he play some three? Is he going to be able to play some five? How physical is he? I don’t know any of that. Alex Reese had hip surgery. How is he going to recover? Is he going to be strictly a five? Can we get him to move a lot better to where we can play him at the four? Bruner can play like a four-man. Are Bruner and Alex Reese going to be able to play a lot together? Or is it one or the other? Is Herb Jones going to be a three or do we play him strictly as a four? A lot of those questions, I got a pretty good idea in my mind, but until we get out there practicing and start putting the pieces together and see how guys play together, it’s impossible to predict.

What constitutes success in Year 2?

That’s a really good question, because what if we don’t have a full season? It’s really easy to put a number of wins on something — if we hit X amount of wins it’ll be a successful year. I always hesitate to do that. Even at Buffalo my last year, we had 32 wins. But I never wanted to say Sweet 16 or bust. We didn’t make the Sweet 16 my last year at Buffalo, but I thought that was as successful a year as Buffalo basketball had, ever. Thirty-two wins was ridiculous. We ran into Texas Tech, who probably should’ve won the national championship that year.

When you measure success, you have to look at what you can control, and did you do a great job at everything you can control? Are we much improved on defense? Are we in the top 25 percent, top third of the SEC on defense? If we are, then we made the jump we wanted to. In one- or two-possession games, we were 4-7. Can we close games better? I thought we closed a lot of games terrible. We were up 20 on Florida and lost in double-overtime. You can’t do that. Can we do a better job preparing them to win close games? Those are some of the things that, if we’re doing them better, we were successful at improving.

I’ve never put a number of wins on a goal sheet in front of a team. It’s more, let’s make sure we’re getting better every day, let’s analyze the biggest weaknesses we have, let’s talk about them, let’s figure out how to get better at them. We looked at our weaknesses this year at Alabama and we’re all-in on improving them. If we improve on those, and continue to get better at what our strengths are, then we’ve had a successful year.

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