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Alabama Is Looking Like An SEC Powerhouse … In Basketball

The all-consuming wave of the Alabama Crimson Tide was supposed to dissipate in January after Nick Saban claimed his seventh national title. Instead, it appears to have swelled and swallowed the SEC again, this time on a different field of play.

Shortly after capping its best season in program history on the gridiron, Alabama is in the midst of its best season in program history on the hardwood. The Alabama men’s basketball team went from unranked in the AP preseason poll to the top 101 and figures to snap a 15-season streak of failing to appear in the AP postseason poll.

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In less than two seasons as head coach, Nate Oats has already been awarded a nearly $1 million-per-year pay raise and an extension through 2026-27. He turned an SEC afterthought into the conference standard bearer, with a vice grip on the standings. Suddenly and surprisingly, a team that was picked to finish fifth in the SEC standings now has a 30.1 percent chance of entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed for the first time.2

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So how did Oats do it?

When he arrived in Tuscaloosa with his culture of “selfless love,” Oats brought with him the breakneck ethos he fashioned in Buffalo, where he brought the Bulls to three NCAA Tournament appearances and two first-round wins over four seasons. Oats has ratcheted up the pace to a new level for the Tide.

Said then-junior John Petty Jr. after one of his first practices under Oats, “It’s hard to just stand around out here.”

Under former head coach Avery Johnson, Alabama twice finished in the bottom 50 nationally in adjusted tempo.3 Under Oats, the team is on track to finish in the top 10 for the second consecutive season, a feat that Bama had never accomplished in the KenPom era.4 Only Coppin State averages faster offensive possessions than the 14.1 seconds averaged by the Tide.

Alabama rapidly became an offensive juggernaut in its first season under Oats, during which it led the SEC in scoring, 3-point shooting percentage and 3-pointers made per contest. That hasn’t changed this year. Bama put up 115 points on Georgia earlier this month, becoming the first SEC team to score that much in a conference matchup since Rick Pitino’s title-winning Kentucky Wildcats in 1996.

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The Tide have continued to chuck a bunch of threes: Earlier this season, the team broke an SEC record by hitting 23 of them against LSU.5 In Jahvon Quinerly and Joshua Primo, Oats has two of the top six 3-point marksmen in the SEC. In Petty, Oats has the player responsible for the most made threes (56) in the conference. And in Herbert Jones, he has one of five players to be named to midseason lists for both the Defensive Player of the Year and the overall Player of the Year.

But while offense has been its hallmark, the key evolution for the team was made on the defensive end.

Alabama allows more than 70 points per game, which ranks 190th nationally and near the bottom of the SEC. But the pace at which Oats’s team operates means that its opponents will also get more chances to score. By adjusted defensive efficiency, which weights the number of points allowed per 100 possessions by the quality of offense faced, Alabama allows 88.2 points, the second-best rate in the country and a gargantuan improvement from the 99.5 allowed by a season ago, which ranked 114th.

The Tide force opponents into taking shots away from the rim nearly one-third of the time, and they hold opponents to an effective field-goal percentage of 45.4 percent, the 16th-best rate in the nation and the fourth-lowest allowed by an Alabama defense in the past 23 seasons. Opponents are shooting an SEC-worst 29.2 percent from beyond the arc against the Tide and assisting on an SEC-low 42.5 percent of made field goals.

Alabama has had a winning record six seasons running, but it’s got only one tournament appearance to show for it. In short order, Oats has his team on its way to Alabama’s first SEC regular-season title since 2002. His would be the 11th team to go from unranked in the preseason to a top seed in the tournament, but as Ken Pomeroy noted last year, these teams historically don’t advance that far into the tournament. That may be how the Tide’s season ends, but for now, Oats and his players have dreams of a national championship, just like their gridiron brethren.

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  1. The Tide are ranked No. 6 in the latest poll, creeping closer to the program’s best postseason ranking: No. 5 at the conclusion of the 1955-56 season.

  2. Alabama trails three Big Ten outfits in the polls that will cannibalize one another in the coming weeks. There is no precedent for a major-conference school with only one loss in conference play not receiving a top seed in the tournament.

  3. The estimated number of possessions per 40 minutes against a defense that wants to play at an average Division I pace.

  4. Since 1996-97.

  5. It was the team’s own record, since it hit 22 of them a season ago against Auburn.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.