TUSCALOOSA — Nate Oats’ phone buzzed early Wednesday morning, just hours removed from the second of back-to-back disappointing home losses that both involved Alabama surrendering double-digit leads.
It was a text message from Crimson Tide junior forward Alex Reese accepting responsibility for Tuesday night’s 69-68 loss to visiting Tennessee, one which he fouled out with four minutes left.
It was Alabama’s third-straight loss in the middle of Southeastern Conference play.
“I think we’ve got some guys that really want to be winners,” Oats said Friday. “I mean, we’ve got guys at 6 in the morning texting us, we’ve got guys that want to get this thing figured out … like badly.”
Playing without the services of injured defensive leader Herbert Jones (wrist) for at least another two weeks, the Tide (12-10, 4-5 SEC) hits the road Saturday at Georgia for the first of back-to-back road games during a pivotal juncture in its season, especially as it relates to the Tide’s postseason fate.
“Our margin for error is real small right now without Herb (Jones), so every little mistake kind of gets magnified,” Oats said. “Knowing our margin for error is a lot smaller, we’ve got to be better and I think guys have owned that. I think the practice mood’s been better, honestly I think the last two days at practice have been as good as we’ve had.”
Oats hopes that energy carries over as the Crimson Tide hits the road for four of its next six games this month.
“Road wins are going to be (important) for us going into March, so we really have to lock in and win (some of) those games,” freshman guard Jaden Shackelford said.
In fact, while Alabama might not have had the best luck away from Coleman Coliseum this season — going just 2-5 in true road games — its recent struggles at home may make a road trip the perfect way to snap out of its funk.
“We’ve lost two at home, and we were up in both, so it may not be the worst thing to go on the road maybe,” Oats said. “Hopefully we can get back to winning some games on the road before we come back home again. There may be some value to going on the road.”
Added redshirt freshman center Javian Davis: “I feel like the road just brings more of a dog out of me. (It makes me want to) just be aggressive for my team and show the other fans that I’m a good player that can play at a high level.”
Alabama enters Saturday’s game in Athens as a slight 1-point favorite, but that has more to do with Georgia’s record (12-10, 2-7 SEC) than anything it’s done this season.
It also presents an unfavorable match-up against Bulldogs five-star freshman guard Anthony Edwards, who is widely projected to be a high NBA lottery pick later this summer. Edwards leads all Division I freshmen averaging 19.9 points and is averaging an NBA-caliber 28 points and 10.3 rebounds per game over Georgia’s last three outings. In nine SEC games, Edwards has accounted for nearly 1/3rd of the Bulldogs’ scoring with 199 combined points (averaging 22.1 points per game) in conference play this season.
“He definitely looks like the No. 1 pick in the draft for large stretches in games, and then there are other times when he looks like he’s 18 years old,” Oats said of Edwards. “I think that’s part of (Georgia’s up-and-down season). … There have been stretches in games when Georgia looks like the best team in this league, … (and) at home they’re able to make those good stretches (last) a little bit longer I think.”
It’s those sort of stretches Oats and company are hoping to avoid Saturday on hostile turf.
“Playing on the road with kind of hostile crowds, you’ve got to have some toughness about you, some mental toughness, to be able to withstand some runs,” Oats said. “So we’ve talked to them about being a little bit more mentally tough. About, if a team gets a score or two on you, we’ve got to get a stop and we’ve got to take care of the ball and get a decent shot up. That becomes even bigger on the road, and you definitely don’t want to give up big runs to a team on the road and really get the crowd into it.”
Because, overall record aside, the Bulldogs have been especially difficult against inside Stegman Coliseum, going 10-2 so far this season and outscoring opponents by 13 points per game at home. That includes lopsided wins over Tennessee and Texas A&M in two of Georgia’s last three home games.
“Their record doesn’t show it, but they’re a good team, especially at home,” Davis said.