The Alabama Crimson Tide (1-1) of the Southeastern Conference travel 1,189 miles north to pay a visit to Rhode Island (1-1) at the Ryan Center tonight. New head coach Nate Oats, who went 96-43 with three trips to the NCAA Tournament in four years at Buffalo, takes over for Avery Johnson. Johnson and Alabama negotiated a mutually agreeable split from the school after an 18-16, 8-10 finish a year ago.
Up north, Oats led Buffalo to a blistering 32-4 record and a Round of 32 appearance last year, serving as a springboard for his hire at Alabama. He’s thoughtful and unvarnished in offering his perspective — and carries an affinity for Rhode Island based upon his relationship with former URI star E.C. Matthews, who Oats coached in high school.
The Rams set to tip against Alabama on tonight at 7:30pm. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Oats since the College Chalktalk National Coaches’ Diary Series days. So who better than Alabama’s head coach to offer insight into what they’ll bring to the Ocean State?
In a word, nobody.
Chris DiSano: Let’s start with the obvious. You take the job at Alabama, had a lot to do early with respect to retaining players and adjusting… How are you settling in now?
Nate Oats: We’re enjoying it. We kept Kira Lewis Jr. and John Petty Jr. out of the transfer portal. I like our group that we’ve got and were able to add some quality players to it. We’re a little banged up; we have two kids out for the year with ACL injuries… and Herb Jones didn’t play the last game. If we can get healthy I really like our roster.
The city has embraced us. My family likes it down here, we’re settled family-wise and I’m starting to enjoy the team and they’re starting to play fairly well.
CD: For URI fans unfamiliar with you and your style, can you describe your existing team and how you want to play ideally?
NO: Yeah, when we were at Buffalo last year, we were number one in the country in transition points per game and we were top five in the country in scoring each of the last two years. So we like to play up-and-down and up tempo. We spread the floor and shoot a lot of threes.
Rhode Island is a really good defensive team so, it’s going to be a battle. Can we score against them and can they score against us too? But they’re a real solid defensive team that we’re going to have our work cut out for us as far as scoring it.
CD: I know you embrace analytics. You emphasize generating free throw attempts, getting downhill two point attempts, and kick-out threes — in that order. Through the first two games, how would you assess what you’ve seen so far from your team?
NO: I think they’re bought in. We went through the analytics with them, “statted” it for the summer and fall, showing them percentages, talking about points per possession and efficiency and we’ve had NBA scouts come through who recognize the importance of that. They’re not dumb kids so they get it.
So then the question is, “Can you generate those types of shots in your offense?” That’s where they’re getting more comfortable running the type of offense that we were able to generate in our last couple years at Buffalo.
We’re going to try to get those shots. Obviously, good defenses take those away. Rhode Island puts a lot of pressure on you. They rotate well, get in the passing lanes, create turnovers — and that’s been a little bit of an issue with us. We had 19 turnovers last game but our shot selection has been fairly decent.
CD: On the other side of the ball, you all throw a fair amount of pressure at teams and want to play an aggressive man when you’re fully healthy. How are your guys responding on that side and, in terms of your own inspiration or styles you’ve lifted, how have you quilted your defensive approach together through the years?
NO: That’s a good question. At Buffalo, we had some real tough, physical guards that could get into the ball. We had a lot of depth on the perimeter. We don’t have that kind of depth here this year. We do want to be more aggressive in our man-to-man, but one of our starting guards James “Beetle” Bolden fouled out in just over 11 minutes last game at home, so we have to figure out how to do this without fouling. We would like to apply ball pressure but we can’t afford to have anybody in foul trouble with our depth issues right now.
As far as my philosophy, I went to a lot of Michigan State practices, so a lot of it came from that. They put pressure on the ball but they’re heavy in the gaps. They’re not out denying as much, so we’re a little more gap heavy team. I’ve got a former NBA coach on staff, Charlie Henry. I got him his first job out of college when I was a high school coach at Romulus in Michigan. He spent five years in the NBA, was the Bulls G-League coach the last two years, so he’s kind of our defensive coordinator. We’ve picked up a few ball screen coverages and types of stuff that came out of the NBA. So a little from here, little from there.
Still, I think effort is the biggest thing. No matter what you do philosophically, if you don’t play hard it doesn’t matter. I think that’s one thing Rhode Island’s done a great job of, they play really hard. We’re trying to get our guys to play at a level that warrants winning games with your effort on the defensive end.
CD: That’s terrific insight. Let’s discuss the depth issues. You’ve got to play hard but with injuries to guys like James Rojas and Juwan Gary – and then the waiver denial of Jahvon Quinerly – you’re thin. A lot of coaches go cliche with “next man up” lip service… but how do you message that out to your team to motivate them?
NO: I addressed them earlier this week after our loss to Penn. With the lack of depth it’s a little harder to put the hammer down if a guy isn’t playing and giving us the effort on the defensive end. When Herb [Jones] went out of that game against Penn, nine minutes in, and then didn’t play last game, we reduced our perimeter rotation.
So I made the point to our guys that we don’t have a bench to hold you guys accountable like I’d like to. So, when we do get healthy, if you’re a guy that refuses to be held accountable for your effort on the defensive end, then you’re really a loser and it’s going to be hard to win games with you. We’ve got to get an effort out of you guys even though we don’t have the hammer over there on the bench with three guys salivating and waiting to come in and get the job done.
So I challenged them. Let’s be mature about this and give us the effort that you need even without a hammer. I thought they answered the call against Florida Atlantic and they’re going to have to continue to answer the call on a night by night basis.
CD: As for Herb, can you comment on how he’s feeling?
NO: We didn’t do anything live today in practice so he participated in everything we did today. We’ll probably hold him out of some of the live stuff, trying to make sure he doesn’t re-injure the elbow. I’m anticipating he’ll play but it will be a game time decision based on how the next couple of days of practice go with him.
CD: Kira is impacting you in so many ways across the box score and well beyond. Can you share your thoughts on his play out of the gates?
NO: He’s a dynamic point guard who can get downhill. He can shoot it, pass it. The first game we needed him to score and he scores 30. The second game they were collapsing on him and all of a sudden he’s spraying the ball around and he’s pushing a triple-double with 16, 8 and 6. The offense runs through him and he’s great in transition too.
CD: Javian Davis had a nice game on Tuesday (19 points, 9 rebs). We know that with freshmen there are expected inconsistencies but what did you like that you saw out of him?
NO: I thought he answered his fairly poor game against Penn really well. He knew it, practiced well the entire week leading up to Florida Atlantic, and I thought he deserved to as play well as he did. He got his first start. We’re really banged up. But Javian is one of the healthy guys, we started him and he answered the call. He played real physical, played hard, rebounded and finished at the rim well, and did a great job defensively for us.
CD: Other than what you’ve mentioned about Rhode Island, what’s your take on their program from afar?
NO: I think David [Cox] has a similar situation to what I had at Buffalo. Danny got that program to heights that it hadn’t been in a long time and then David was fortunate enough to take over for Danny after he left, similar to the way I took over for Bobby. The question everyone wants to ask is “Can he keep it at that level or can he even raise the level?”
I don’t know that their record said it was great last year, but they lost some talent after Danny’s last year there. Based on their performance against Maryland, they look to me like they’re heading in the right direction this year. I wouldn’t be shocked if they make a run at an NCAA Tournament bid. I think they’re good. They have four all-conference level players and they have some quality underclassmen to go with those four main guys. They’re going to give us everything we can handle and it would be great if Herb is healthy enough to play because we can really use him Friday night.
CD: Of the main four, is there any one that stands out?
NO: We played them a couple years ago [at Buffalo] in the charity exhibition so I’ve seen most of them up close. All four bring something different. Fatts gets in the paint and creates a lot of havoc on your defense. Dowtin is a leader, can do that too, and can shoot it. Langevine might be leading the country in rebounding. He’s given them something inside that is hard to handle. He’s averaging about eight offensive rebounds a game; that’s absurd. And Martin can really shoot the ball well too.
CD: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention E.C. Matthews. Are you still in touch with E.C. and how about with Danny and Bobby Hurley?
NO: Yeah, E.C. is playing in the G-League with Erie, he just had a game the other night. I stay in touch with him, talked to him over the summer and was trying to help him through his decision about where to play, what to do. I talk to Danny fairly frequently. Danny and I just spoke last week quite a bit. I’m a year behind him as far as going into a high major program, taking over, trying to turn it around. He’s been a mentor to me ever since I got in here. I talk to Bobby a little bit less but watch their games, pull for them, and hope they do well.
If I can ever help either one I’m there. The two of them together got me into this business. Bobby hired me and Danny took E.C. and built a relationship with me to the point where Bobby was comfortable enough with me to hire me when he moved to Buffalo. So I kind of owe those guys my start in this business and I’ll always be thankful to them for it. Obviously their time at Rhode Island was where I got to meet them and know them… so Rhode Island has a special spot in my heart as well.
CD: Let’s wrap it here… Assuming you can get healthy, what are your goals for this team? You’ve got No. 6 North Carolina coming up, a good Belmont program, and other challenges in the non-conference before you get into one of the toughest leagues in the nation.
NO: We really have. We’re at Rhode Island, at Penn State, at Samford (a true road game), Furman at home, and others. It’s a schedule that will enable us to make the NCAA Tournament if we do what we think we’re capable of doing. So we’re trying to get a Tournament bid and be playing our best basketball come March. If we get better each day and get/stay healthy, we should be playing in the NCAA Tournament.
CATCH NICHOLLS STATE @ URI, TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 19 AT 9PM (TAPE DELAY) ON YURVIEW, COX CHANNEL 4 IN RHODE ISLAND.
Chris DiSano, is an Atlantic 10 television analyst and writer. He has served as the host of A-10 Live! at Men’s Basketball Media Day and founded the former College Chalktalk. DiSano, who was named an NBC Sports top Atlantic 10 basketball follow, can be found on Twitter at @CDiSano44