As Alabama heads into the NCAA Tournament, the questions won’t go away, but neither will the Tide’s resolve

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After rolling with the same five players for 22 straight games during a basketball streak that saw his team climb to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll for the first time in 20 years, Alabama coach Nate Oates , made a change just in time. for March Madness. Before the Crimson Tide played Mississippi State on Friday in their SEC Tournament opener, he changed his starting lineup for the first time in nearly three months, inserting guard Mark Sears in place of Jaden Bradley.

“It wasn’t necessarily a demotion of Jaden, because Jaden came to me last night and said he thought I should start Jahvon,” Oats said after the Crimson Tide dismantled the Bulldogs with little drama. “That’s the kind of team we have. The guys are willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get better.”

The story is an example of the conflicting images surrounding an Alabama basketball team projected to be a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament and among the top favorites to win the national title.

On the one hand, there’s the program marred by the scandal of manslaughter charges against former player Darius Miles stemming from the January killing of a woman near the university’s campus. Court testimony in February bound Freshman forward Brandon Miller and Bradley star at the scene, though they have not been charged with any crime and are not considered suspects.

The revelations about Miller’s alleged role in driving the murder weapon into the scene — and the school’s lack of punishment for doing so — have left Alabama in disdain for college basketball and created a huge off-court distraction for the SEC regular season champions.

On the other hand, there’s a group Oats has praised for its unselfishness, chemistry and camaraderie, the group Miller referred to as “a family away from home.” It’s the version of Alabama he prefers to project, one embodied by the willingness of Bradley and others to embrace whatever is required for the team’s success, even at personal cost.

When things changed

Miles played in 53 games for Oats in two and a half seasons with the program, but his role on the field was almost non-existent in the first half of the season before he was immediately dismissed from the team after the firing. Alabama barely missed a loss without him, winning its next seven SEC games after holding Miles to an average of 19.9 points in an absurd 24-point rout of Oklahoma during the Big 12/SEC Challenge.

The weeks passed and the shooting story’s role in the national narrative surrounding Alabama basketball faded into the background as the Crimson Tide reached No. 1 on Feb. 13. The following week, things changed. Once Miller, the SEC Freshman of the Year and a potential lottery pick in the 2023 NBA draft, was mired in controversy, Alabama’s elite floundered to close out the regular season.

Peppered with review to handle the issue, the Crimson Tide needed overtime to beat lowly South Carolina on the road. They also barely got past Arkansas and Auburn at home, having won both by wide margins on the road before word of Miller’s presence at the scene of the shooting became public.

Then came a 67-61 loss at Texas A&M to close out a regular season in which the Crimson Tide played one of its worst offensive games of the season. The weight of the scandal seemed to weigh on the court as Oats and Miller battled it out in the public eye.

Oats referred to Miller’s involvement in the shooting as “wrong place, wrong time” and then had to clarify his observationswhile Miller continued with a toneless foreplay pat-down ritual until Oats addressed it with the team.

New normal

But Alabama’s performance in the SEC Tournament suggests it’s finding a rhythm again on the field and at odds with how to handle the lingering cloud surrounding the program’s handling of an off-field disaster.

After Miller scored 18 points in Alabama’s quarterfinal win over Mississippi State, the Crimson Tide brought him to the center stage of the floor interview, even after news broke during the game that Miles had been accused by a grand jury. The second question he faced centered on his own lack of suspension after the shoot.

“With respect, I won’t be able to say about that,” Miller said.

The next question he and teammate Jahvon Quinerly asked was about how the team cuts down on turnovers. It was a sequence that symbolized the strange reality of an elite college basketball team soldiering through one of the most horrific scandals in program history.

Complicating matters, in the weeks between the shootings and revelations of Miller’s involvement, Oats received contract extension making him one of the sport’s 10 highest-paid coaches, further signaling institutional support for Oats’ leadership amid crisis.

“As we got the facts from [law enforcement], that was a decision made, based on all the data we had, with, obviously, my boss, (Alabama athletic director) Greg Byrne. his boss, (Alabama president Stewart) Bell. and the Board,” Oats said this week of the decision not to issue suspensions. “And everybody was comfortable and, I mean, based on the information that we had, Brandon didn’t violate any school policy or team policy, so . .. I was comfortable with the decision that was made.”

It’s unclear whether SEC officials feel the same way. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey addressed the issue this week, acknowledging that he spoke with Byrne on the day of the shooting.

“I don’t share those conversations,” Sankey said. “We have an incredible level of sympathy for the loss of life. This is a tragedy.”

“Incredible culture”

Alabama’s 72-61 performance against Mississippi and Missouri in Saturday’s semifinal may have proven why Alabama — a school that has never reached the Final Four — has been a staunch supporter of Oats and Miller. Missouri used a 19-5 run late in the first half and early in the second to build a 35-31 lead before Miller and freshman Noah Clowney took over.

The duo combined for Alabama’s next 14 points, immediately tipping the contest in the Crimson Tide’s favor and helping them build a comfortable lead that they maintained for the remainder of the game.

Also key in the second half was the play of senior forward Noah Gurley, who scored five points and grabbed four rebounds after playing just six minutes in the first half without attempting a shot.

After being named a three-time All-SoCon honoree in three seasons at Furman, Gurley transferred to Alabama for the 2021-22 season and started 14 games while playing in all 33 and averaging 18 minutes per contest. This season, with the nation’s No. 4 recruiting class on campus, his role has diminished and his production in all categories is down as well.

During Alabama’s last nine games entering the SEC Tournament, Gurley did not play in three of them. In the six games he played, he averaged just 6.7 minutes and scored a total of three points. But in the quarterfinals against Mississippi State, he logged 21 minutes and scored 11 points, setting the stage for another day of meaningful contributions against Missouri in the semifinals.

“It’s bigger than hoops” Gurley said the Crimson Tide Sports Network. “This team is a family. We’ve been through so much. The minutes are few compared to what we’ve been through. It wasn’t a negative thing that I didn’t play. It’s just that my brothers buckled down.”

Criticism of Alabama’s handling of Miller and the fallout from the shooting that killed Jamea Harris, a 23-year-old mother, isn’t going away, especially as the Crimson Tide prepare to head to the sport’s biggest stage in the NCAA Tournament.

Neither does Alabama. The Crimson Tide regained form on the field in the SEC Tournament with a roster that continues to provide Oats with alternate, Alabama-friendly talking points to fend off the tidal wave of critics the program’s handling of an off-field crisis has created.

“I think he embodies our team, to be honest with you,” Oats said of how Gurley has embraced his fluctuating role. “Incredible culture of guys who just care about their teammates.”

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