TUSCALOOSA — Before every video session, Nate Oats lays it all out there for his players — the numbers that is.
A former high school math teacher, the first-year Alabama head coach is a self-described “numbers guy” with a high affinity for basketball analytics.
Because of that, Oats doesn’t sugarcoat anything for his players. Not where the Crimson Tide rank statistically — he recently discussed a drop from fourth to seventh in the team’s SEC defensive efficiency ranking after Saturday’s 105-102 overtime victory at Georgia — or how important the next week could be for its NCAA Tournament chances a month from now.
“We’d all like to play in the NCAA Tournament, … it’s a big deal, (but) we’re not in right now, and in order to get in we’ve got to have more quality wins,” Oats admitted Tuesday. “Well we’ve got two opportunities sitting in from of (us) this week, so it’s big.”
Alabama (13-10, 5-5 SEC) opens its potential make-or-break week Wednesday night at No. 11 Auburn (21-2, 8-2 SEC), which is undoubtedly be seeking revenge after the Tide ended its undefeated season with an 83-64 win in Tuscaloosa, before hosting No. 25 LSU (17-6, 8-2 SEC) on Saturday.
“Auburn’s going to remain — I mean they’ve only lost two games all year — they’re going to be a Quad 1 win 100 percent,” Oats continued, “and LSU even at home will, in all likelihood, end up as a Quad 1 game. We’ve got one Quad 1 win right now, we need to get at least one more. So this week is a big, big week in my opinion.”
And he’s made that abundantly clear to each and every Crimson Tide player.
“He always tells us that. He’s told us these next two are super important,” junior wing John Petty Jr. said Tuesday. “Even though all the games are important, and the past is behind us, and these next two (games) can determine the future of the team, so (Oats) makes sure he lets us know.”
Following its 105-102 overtime win at Georgia, which snapped a three-game losing skid, the Crimson Tide sit 42nd nationally in NET rating but isn’t even among 35 teams currently in consideration for “on the bubble” status according to renown CBSSports.com bracketologist Jerry Palm.
USA Today bracketologist Shelby Mast lists Alabama on the outside looking in for a chance at being one of his “First Four Out,” which means there are still at least eight teams with a better chance to make the 68-team NCAA Tournament field than the Tide.
It’s because of those odds that notching a much-needed Quadrant 1 win this week could do wonders for Alabama’s Tournament chances — especially if it comes Wednesday at Auburn.
“We’re well aware. Like Coach (Oats) said, if we win this game, it’ll probably put us in the NCAA Tournament,” Petty said. “We know we dropped some (previous games) that could’ve helped our chances, so we’re going to have to get some big ones like (Auburn).”
In fact, the Crimson Tide is just 1-5 in Quad 1 games so far this season with just three remaining Quad 1 opportunities — at Auburn, vs. LSU on Saturday and at Mississippi State on Feb. 25 — to round out the regular season. The win at Georgia counted as a Quad 2 victory, evening Alabama’s record in such games to 4-4 with just two more Quad 2 opportunities with road games at Ole Miss (Feb. 22) and the regular-season finale at Missouri (March 7).
“This is a big opportunity,” sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr. said Tuesday. “We’re just going to come in, play hard and try to get the win.”
For Oats and a handful of newcomers on the Tide’s rebuilt roster, Wednesday will be their first visit to the always-hostile Auburn Arena, but it’s a challenge they’re embracing.
“I love playing in big-time environments, whether it’s home or away, (and) it’s great to play in a hostile environment, you get to see what your guys’ character is made of, what they’re made of,” Oats said.
“I think it’s going to be fun playing in that environment, but it’s going to be tough. … I haven’t played there yet, but shoot, I’m looking forward to it.”
Making the week ahead even tougher will be the fact that Alabama’s best defender, junior wing Herb Jones, remains out with a still-healing fractured left wrist.
That said, Jones’ rehabilitation from his wrist surgery a week from last Saturday has gone “better than normal” according to Oats, who is hopeful for a possible return — even if it’s in a somewhat limited capacity — for next Wednesday’s home game against Texas A&M.
“I think it’s going better than normal,” Oats said of Jones’ progress. “We’re doing conditioning with him to keep him in shape. We’re doing a bunch of right-hand (skill work) — he can’t do anything with his left hand really.
“We’ll probably bring him back well before he’s 100 percent, kids want to play all the time, but the left hand is still sore, he can’t really do anything with it. So, we have to get it to a point where he can at least function, where he can pass, catch, dribble some, shoot free throws at least.”
Along with the conditioning drills, Jones continues to stay involved with right hand-only drills while working off to the side during practice in an effort to make sure he’s prepared whenever he can return, especially with Alabama’s NCAA hopes on life support.
“Obviously it’d be nice to have (Jones) for these next two, but if it doesn’t work out that way, hopefully at the end of the year, the (NCAA) Committee’s always said that it takes injuries into account,” Oats said. “And while I hope they do, we still have to get some quality wins with or without Herb.”