March Madness: Nate Oats finally led Alabama to its first Final Four. Now Dan Hurley and UConn wait in Phoenix

By | April 1, 2024

LOS ANGELES – Nate Oats stood in a back hallway of the Arena late Saturday night with a trophy in one hand, a custom-made Alabama WWE championship belt he borrowed from Rylan Griffen in the other, and a net hanging from the hoop was cut. around his neck.

“My grandfather would be proud,” he said, smiling.

After five years and several close runs that fell just short, Oats succeeded. The Crimson Tide, who defeated Clemson 89-82 on Saturday night, have finally reached the Final Four for the first time in program history.

Oats landed at Alabama in 2019 after a pair of dominant runs with Buffalo in the MAC, and he turned the Crimson Tide into a real contender in the SEC almost immediately.

But as dominant as Nick Saban’s football teams were, it didn’t immediately get as much attention as it perhaps should have. Oats knew this would likely be the case when he started working. So he embraced it as best he could.

“It never bothered or bothered me that football was huge in Alabama. I love it,” he said on Saturday. “It’s better for recruitment. It’s better for everything for us. I tried to learn from it.

“And different people would comment. Football, soccer. But we only have 18 national championships under our belt, we still have a few more to catch up on. Let’s just keep grinding. Let’s get to the Final Four first and put ourselves on a big stage.”

He has now done that.

The Crimson Tide, despite losing four of their last six games entering the tournament and bowing out of the SEC Tournament early, reached only their second-ever Elite Eight on Thursday night by eliminating top-seeded North Carolina. Then, after a hot second half from star Mark Sears and a career night from freshman Jarin Stevenson, they pushed past Clemson to keep their season alive and reach Phoenix. They had to shoot 10 of 15 from behind the arc in the final 20 minutes, six of which came from Sears, but they got the job done.

It capped off a great basketball stretch in Tuscaloosa – something the school hasn’t seen in at least 20 years, if not longer. Oats has now won two SEC regular-season titles, two conference tournament titles and has been to at least the Sweet 16 in three of his four NCAA Tournament appearances with the Crimson Tide. They were also ranked No. 1 last season with star Brandon Miller, though they fell early to San Diego State in the Sweet 16.

“Obviously, he’s just a great coach,” guard Aaron Estrada said. “He has lost a lot from last year, starting with the coaching staff. So if he rebuilds a group like he did with us, I think it just shows how hardworking he is and how much of a competitor he is.”

Nate Oats has led Alabama to its first-ever Final Four in his fifth season with the program.  (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos/Getty Images)

Nate Oats has led Alabama to its first-ever Final Four in his fifth season with the program. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos/Getty Images)

With UConn on the horizon, what next?

It won’t be long before Oats and his staff turn their attention to UConn.

Alabama will face the Huskies first in the Final Four on Saturday night. Based on how UConn has looked since winning the national championship last season, that will be a ridiculously tough task.

UConn rolled over Illinois after a wild 30-0 run in their Elite Eight matchup on Saturday, marking the 11th straight win for the program and the 25th in the last 26 games. The Huskies have won every NCAA tournament game by at least 13 points over the past two seasons, and their closest win this tournament was a 17-point victory over Northwestern in the second round.

They are by far the betting favorite to win their second straight national title, which hasn’t happened since Florida’s run in 2006 and 2007.

“They went on a 30-0 run, I heard tonight,” Oats said of UConn on Saturday. “Is that correct? That’s unheard of in the Elite Eight. That’s crazy… His formula works pretty well. I’ll have to figure that formula out for myself here soon.”

Oats obviously has a lot of connections to UConn head coach Dan Hurley. He worked under Bobby Hurley, whom he replaced at Buffalo, and has been friends with both Hurley brothers for years.

“It’s ironic that I get to coach against Danny. I don’t know if ‘get’ is the right word because they have a pretty good team,” he said. “But I’m in the Final Four and I get to face Danny who helped me get this thing. Obviously Bobby is the one who hired me, but those two guys actually came to college together and have been great to me the whole time.

If Sears and the Tide can shoot like they did in the second half on Saturday night, they can hang with just about anyone. But when the shots don’t fall, like in the first twenty minutes, things can quickly get out of hand. Just look at what happened to Illinois on Saturday night at TD Garden.

But for now, at least in the immediate aftermath of their party in Los Angeles, Oats isn’t worried about what will happen in Arizona.

“I don’t know if I’ve really noticed it yet,” Oats said. “It probably won’t hit me until after the Final Four is over because I’m going to enjoy it tonight and we’ve got to figure out how to beat UConn.”

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