“The job’s not finished. We’re not done yet.”
The words calmly and confidently eased out of Alabama basketball sophomore guard Jahvon Quinerly’s mouth. The words came so easily, it almost seemed as if he had rehearsed them.
And why shouldn’t they have come easily? Quinerly’s words were stated on the afternoon of March 14, mere minutes after he and his Crimson Tide won its first SEC tournament title since 1991. Alabama had already wrapped up its first regular-season conference title since 2002, a testament that his team had not simply lucked into a tournament victory, but also dominated the regular season as the conference’s preeminent team.
As Quinerly’s words echoed throughout the limited-capacity Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville on that late winter afternoon, the sounds emanated from his lips as a statement of declaration.
Alabama basketball was back, and its success this season is far from the end of the story.
Alabama’s trip to the NCAA tournament did not start on that cold day in Nashville, though. No, it started all the way back in March of 2019 with the hiring of coach Nate Oats. After a disappointing 18-16 season that ended with an 80-79 overtime loss to Norfolk State inside Coleman Coliseum in the first round of the NIT, it was clear that Tuscaloosa needed change. Oats was the answer to that change, and just three days after the firing of former head coach Avery Johnson, Oats stepped onto the scene.
At this point, every Alabama basketball fan knows the story that follows. Oats rushed onto the scene and laid out a plan that worked to shape the culture at his old coaching home of Buffalo:
“We talk about max effort,” Oats said during his first-ever press conference after the announcement of his hiring. “That’s everything. That’s every workout, every weight room session, every practice. Our guys are going to give max effort. We’re going to demand it out of them.”
“We’re going to get better every day,” Oats said. “We want to be better today than yesterday. We’re going to get better. We’re going to get guys that want to get in the gym and work on their own. […] We’re going to get a culture that they’re in getting better every day.”
“We talk about selfless love,” Oats said. “We’re going to teach our guys how to love each other, love this community, treat each other well.”
These were the three principles that Oats preached. With those along with a blue-collar mentality, he began the uphill battle of shifting and shaping the culture of Alabama basketball forever.
In his first season at Alabama, the Crimson Tide experienced a plethora of growing pains. Plagued by injuries to both starters and bench players, the team finished the season with an overall record of 16-15.
The problems of the program were only escalated when Quinerly, who had joined the team as a transfer from Villanova in the wake of Oats’ hiring, was unable to play to his immediate eligibility waiver being inexplicably denied by the NCAA.
On March 3, Alabama lost its final home game of the season in an 87-79 loss to Vanderbilt. Following the game, Oats shifted the blame to no one other than himself.
“Effort and all that stuff falls on the head coach,” Oats said. “We’ve got to get that changed and we’re working on it, but it’s obviously not changed enough. I’m as disappointed as the fans are, I know they’re super disappointed. I’m not going to sleep well tonight, hopefully we have a lot of players that are just as disappointed as we are, and we can make some changes.
“We’ve got to get it changed.”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced an early end to the 2019-2020 season, but Oats and his team would not have made the NCAA tournament barring a miraculous SEC tournament championship. With that opportunity being snatched from beneath them mere hours before its first game of the tournament was slated to happen, the team instead returned to Tuscaloosa with one thing on its mind: continuous improvement.
As the pandemic raged across the globe, Oats had quite a problem on his hands. Gyms across the country were closed, and Alabama athletics was forced to not host athletes on campus. Team workouts were out of the question. However, nothing could stop the players from working at home.
Over the summer, the team began its quest for an improved 2020-2021 season in the comforts of their own homes. Armed with at-home workouts, the players began to strengthen and condition themselves from home. As the pandemic continued and the NCAA’s guidelines began to take shape, the team then moved to working out in groups in Tuscaloosa.
Oats’ cultural revival was building, and a pandemic wasn’t going to stand in he or his team’s way.
After returning to campus in the fall and with team workouts and practices being hosted on a regular basis, the Crimson Tide soon found itself opening its season on No. 25 against Jacksonville State. While Alabama triumphed 81-57 in its home opener, the Crimson Tide lost three of its next six games to bring its overall record to 4-3 heading into its final non-conference game before SEC play began.
And then, seemingly like magic, a switch was flipped.
Alabama won its next 10 games, nine of those 10 being in the SEC. In those 10 games, Alabama beat Kentucky not once but twice — including an 85-65 victory inside Rupp Arena, this first road win at Kentucky for the Crimson Tide since 2006. Other highlights included a 94-90 road win at Auburn, a 71-63 victory at Tennessee and a 105-75 drumming of LSU in Baton Rouge — a game in which Alabama set a single-game three-pointer record by shooting 23 threes against the Tigers.
Alabama basketball was no longer the team that teams of the SEC had come to expect. Gone were the days of being a punching bag belonging to the SEC’s elite. Now, it was the Crimson Tide that was doing the punching.
Combined with a top-five defensive efficiency rating and a top-30 offensive rating according to KenPom, the Crimson Tide was nothing to be trifled with. Led by the senior trio of guard John Petty Jr., wing Herb Jones and forward Alex Reese along with sophomores Quinerly and Jaden Shackelford, Alabama was nowhere close to the same team that had gone 16-15 the year prior.
Alabama finished conference play with a 16-2 SEC record, losing only at Missouri and at Arkansas. Ranked No. 6 in the country and with the regular-season SEC title clinched, the Crimson Tide marched into Nashville in March as the top seed of the SEC tournament and a potential No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Prior to the first game, Oats expressed that he and his team’s goal was not to simply make the NCAA tournament. To him and his players, it was much more than that.
“If our only motivation was to make the NCAA Tournament at the beginning of the year then we achieved it because we’re in and we can relax and lose in the first round,” Oats said. “I’ve never made it a point in coaching to say, ‘Our goal this year is to win this number of games.’ No, our goal is to be playing as close as we can to our full potential come the end of the season as we possibly can be. So, our goal right now is to be playing the best basketball that we’ve ever played all year. If we’re playing the best basketball we’ve played all year, we’re winning those games.
“To me it’s how you frame what you’re trying to do from the first practice through the end and we never said ‘Ok, we need to make the NCAA Tournament this year.’ We all assumed if we did was we were supposed to be doing that we would make it. I was under that assumption the whole time.”
And now we come full circle back to Oats, Quinerly and the SEC champion Alabama basketball.
Alabama took the first two games of the SEC tournament by storm, downing Mississippi State 85-48 after a bye through the first two rounds and then handling Tennessee 73-68 in the tournament semifinal.
On March 14, the Crimson Tide faced one of its biggest rivals on the hardwood in LSU. In one of the team’s toughest outings of the season, a last-second block by Jones and two failed tip-ins by the Tigers at the buzzer resulted in an 80-79 SEC tournament championship victory for the Crimson Tide.
Alabama was announced later that afternoon to be a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament — tied for the highest seeding in program history. After a decade of early tournament exits — both at the conference and NCAA level — Alabama basketball was primed to finish the season in meaningful — and more importantly, memorable — fashion.
After a brief celebration on the court, the team packed up its hotel rooms, loaded onto buses and headed straight for Indianapolis — the home of the 2021 NCAA tournament bubble.
As SEC tournament MVP Quinerly had said, their job was not yet finished.
As a No. 2 seed, Alabama faced No. 15 seed Iona in the first round of the tournament. While Alabama’s offense appeared sluggish and Petty was underperforming on the offensive end of the court, the Crimson Tide was able to take care of business and advance to the Round of 32 with a 68-55 win inside historic Hinkle Fieldhouse on the campus of Butler University.
The second round came much easier to Alabama. Matching up against No. 10 seed Maryland and former Crimson Tide player Galin Smith — who had transferred from Alabama following the end of the 2019-2020 season — the Crimson Tide’s offense sprung to life inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Petty’s woes beyond the arc seemingly vanished, with the senior hitting four threes and finishing second on the team in points with 20. Quinerly accounted for a remarkable 11 assists on the night, and Alabama rolled out of the arena with a 96-77 win and its first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2004.
For the Sweet 16, Alabama returned to Hinkle for a game against No. 11 seed UCLA. It was there that the Crimson Tide’s historic season would come to a close.
To tell the tale briefly, the shots simply did not fall for Alabama. The Crimson Tide shot just 25 percent from beyond the arc and was 11-of-25 from the free-throw line. While Alabama bested the Bruins in almost every offensive category, a valiant effort by UCLA kept the game a back-and-forth affair for most of the game’s length.
A buzzer-beating three-pointer by Reese sent the game into overtime, but a 20-7 run by the Bruins to start the five-minute overtime period was too much for the Crimson Tide to overcome.
After the game, an emotional Oats took to the stage and expressed his thoughts on his 2020-2021 Crimson Tide.
“Best team I’ve coached,” Oats said. “I had some tough, hard-nosed. I love my Buffalo teams, but this team was tough, hard-nosed, with a lot of talent. Fifth in the country, that’s pretty good.
“So proud of them. Wish I was still coaching them for another week or week and a half, whatever it would have been, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Far from Final
While Alabama’s season didn’t have the fairytale ending that many fans wanted for the program, this year’s team was one of the best in Crimson Tide basketball history.
Along with the SEC regular-season and tournament titles, Alabama also earned quite a list of personal accolades. Jones was named both SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. Both Quinerly and Jones were named to the All-Tournament team while Quinerly was named its MVP.
Jones was also named third-team All-American by both Sporting News and the Associated Press. Petty leaves Alabama as the Crimson Tide’s all-time leading three-point shooter with 311 buckets. And Reese? Well, he leaves the team with one of the most memorable shots in recent Alabama basketball memory with his three-point buzzer beater against UCLA.
Regardless of the outcome of the season, this Alabama team will be remembered as the team that rejuvenated the culture in Tuscaloosa and rebuilt the program. While the team’s seniors could have left at any time in the days following Johnson’s departure and Oats’ arrival, they stuck it out and showed their commitment to the team in their home state.
For Oats, he knows exactly how he’s going to remember this team.
“I’ll remember it as the team that changed the entire culture of Alabama basketball,” Oats said after the Sweet 16 loss. “Expectation levels are drastically different. Recruiting is different. People want to come here and play for Alabama basketball. People think about Alabama basketball way different.
“I told our guys, I’m going to be talking about this team for the next 30 years I’m coaching. This is an unbelievable team with a bunch of high character kids that stepped up to the challenge and changed the entire narrative of Alabama basketball.”
While the senior trio might be departing Tuscaloosa and heading onward towards the realm of professional basketball, the Crimson Tide’s quest for max effort, continuous improvement and selfless love is far from over.
The mantra of Alabama football not rebuilding but reloading now extends to basketball as well. Along with players already on the roster such as Quinerly, Shackelford and freshman forward Alex Tchikou, the Crimson Tide already has more prospective talent waiting in the wings. Alabama has already signed the top high school player in the state in point guard J.D. Davison, a solid forward in Jusaun Holt and one of the nation’s top JUCO prospects in power forward Langston Wilson.
With a Sweet 16 and an SEC title under its belt, the changing of the culture at Alabama basketball will only progress from here on out.
Like the rejuvenated fanbase that has fervently had the team’s back all season, Oats is a firm believer that the 2020-2021 season was not just a one-off affair. Rather, it is a sign of good things to come for Alabama.
“We’ve got some really big-time recruits coming in,” Oats said. “The future of Alabama basketball is in a great spot. I would hope. As a coach, it’s going to motivate me. We’ve got to figure out what to do better. There’s obviously stuff I could have done better in this game, and I want to figure it out. At some point, I’ll watch this game, and as a staff, we’ll go down and evaluate it, once I get to that point where I’m ready to watch it.
“We’ll do better. I thought we made drastic improvements from year one to year two. We need to make more improvements from year two to year three.”
As Quinerly so confidently put it following the SEC tournament championship, Alabama basketball’s job is not finished.
It is not done yet. Not now, not tomorrow and — unfortunately for the rest of the teams of the SEC — not anytime soon.