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Opinion: Nate Oats has Alabama positioned to make noise in NCAA Tournament

It’s been a very good 2021 for Alabama, which one month after winning another national championship in football is poised to capture the program’s first regular-season conference championship in men’s basketball since 2002 and one of the top eight seeds in next month’s NCAA Tournament.

Success in the former (football) is less surprising than in the latter (basketball). Long a football powerhouse, Alabama basketball has been solid by SEC standards — third in league history in wins, for example — but far from a national contender, with only one trip to the Elite Eight on its record.

Times are changing. With an unexpected surge into the top 10 of the Ferris Mowers Coaches Poll in only the team’s second year under Nate Oats, one of college coaching’s breakout stars, the Crimson Tide are in position to capitalize on Kentucky’s swoon under John Calipari and become the team to beat in the SEC.

Saturday’s 82-78 win against Vanderbilt moved Alabama to 18-5 overall and 13-1 in the SEC.

This dominance of the conference — the Tide went into Saturday up three games on second-place Arkansas — has come against a very strong SEC, even as the national perception of the league has suffered for the Wildcats’ 7-13 record.

According to the NCAA’s NET rankings, the SEC is the second-best conference in the country behind the Big Ten. The league has seven teams in the top 56 of the rankings, a key metric used by the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

The latest USA TODAY Sports bracketology has six SEC teams in the field of 68, with the Crimson Tide as a No. 2 seed. That would match Alabama’s highest seeding in its tournament history, reached in 1987 and 2002.

Nate Oats signals his team during the first half of a game against Vanderbilt. (Photo: Vasha Hunt, AP)

This week, the school rewarded Oats with a contract extension through 2027 and raised his annual salary to $3.225 million.

"We had great expectations when we hired Coach Oats," athletics director Greg Byrne said. "He has exceeded those expectations, and we want to ensure he is compensated among the top half of the SEC."

Oats was hired from Buffalo in 2019 after leading the Bulls to three MAC championships and back-to-back trips into the tournament’s second round. Along the way, Oats developed a reputation for expressing opinions other coaches might play closer to the vest: “We’re the better team,” he said after Buffalo beat Syracuse in 2018, and after defeating Arizona in that year’s tournament said he was tired of “soft” Pac-12 teams not pressuring the ballhandler.

In December, Oats criticized the timing of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's decision to cancel the rest of non-conference play out of concern for the COVID-19 pandemic following two straight losses. "Do you think if Coach K hadn't lost his two non-conference games at home that he would still be saying that?" asked Oats, who later said he spoke on the phone with Krzyzewski and apologized.

Is there a direct line connecting Oats’ confidence — and it takes confidence to lob a verbal grenade at one of the biggest names in the sport’s history — and the Tide’s performance? Since Oats’ comments on Dec. 10, Alabama has gone 14-3 with wins against Tennessee (71-63), Arkansas (90-59) and Kentucky (85-65 and 70-59).

The run has left the SEC staring up at the Crimson Tide. With the right hire in place and back-to-back top-20 recruiting classes, Alabama has the pieces to build a bright future off this breakout season.

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg

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