Sunday, March 22, 2020

Wrapping up a season that ended with no end. 2019-2020 Recap and State of the Program Manifesto

For many of us, this is the most wonderful time of the year.  Spring is upon us, the weather is warming up in cooler locales, the days are longer, the sun is shining, baseball is ramping up, and our favorite sport is in the midst of its championship season.  We put money in tournament pools, we take off work to watch games and compare brackets, and when Alabama is involved (which sadly has not been very often in recent years) we put our whole lives on hold to at least watch, if not travel to, those games on little notice.  It's fun and exciting.

Obviously, none of that is happening this year.  There is no NCAA tournament, or sports for that matter, as the world is facing much larger issues.  Most of us are working from home if we are fortunate enough to be working at all.  Instead of watching the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, we're all following the news and watching "infection curves" and "mortality rates."  I think there's some value to trying to maintain some sense of normalcy during chaotic times, so I'm stepping away from the news this afternoon to recap the season and give my thoughts on the current state of the Alabama basketball program, as I do at the end of each season.

With a new coach always brings a new sense of hope, curiosity, and optimism.  There was some skepticism from the fan base about Coach Oats coming in.  He was only a few years removed from being a high school coach and was another "up and coming" mid-major promising a more fun, up-tempo style of play.  While not as polished in his delivery and media interactions as Coach Avery Johnson, he said all the right things and seemed to bring a lot of energy.

It was a roller-coaster of a season, that in some ways was just like most every year we've had for the better part of the last decade, but in some others ways was drastically different.  One thing that didn't change was our bad luck.  By Kenpom's "luck" metric, which measures wins and losses versus expected outcomes given offensive and defensive efficiency, we were one of the most unlucky teams in the nation, not even cracking the top 300.  The bad luck goes further than losing close games though, we lost 2 players in Rojas and Gary before the season even started to injuries, and the NCAA inexplicably denied JQ, our 5 star transfer's eligibility request this year.  Add to that the injuries to Beetle, Alex, Petty, and Herb throughout the year, and this team never really had much of a chance.

Instead of adjusting to his short-handed roster, Coach Oats insisted on installing his system and getting what was left of his team to buy in and run it.  The result was a much more exciting brand of basketball than we've been accustomed to.  We were in the top 5 in the nation in tempo and tops in the conference in scoring.  As expected, there were some growing pains.  We looked bad in the Bahamas tournament with a bunch of sloppy turnovers, poor defense, and a 1-2 record.  Turnovers and defense were a recurring problem throughout the season, although we did generally improve in the turnover area.  The team seemed to hit their stride early to mid-way through the SEC schedule, upsetting auburn and LSU at home, and holding their own on the road.  Unfortunately, whether due to the injuries, running out of gas, or something else, we had some unmotivated performances and lost some home games down the stretch as favorites and played ourselves right off the tournament bubble, as we've done countless times in recent years.

Overall, I give Coach Oats a B- on his first year.  The jury is still out. I like his style of play and his overall philosophy.  Until the last couple of games, his teams played with a lot of effort and showed great character for most of the season.  I would like to see a little more creativity on defense, and his in-game adjustments and clock/timeout management was questionable at best.  These are things that he could easily improve upon and become a great coach.  The key, of course, will be his ability to recruit at this level, and we won't know the answer to that question for a couple more seasons.

The state of the program is basically the same as it's always been.  I wrote last year that all of these coaching failures are a symptom of an underlying problem.  It's possible the right coach could come along and be the right fit and overcome all of those issues and win big.  It seems we are playing the lottery and hoping we hit the "Billy Donovan" ticket like Florida did in the 2000s.  Coach Oats may very well be that guy, and I hope he is.  He's certainly shown some signs to give us hope that is the case.

However, there remains a commitment issue.  The athletic department and Board of Trustees has the Coleman renovations as "phase 2" behind football, softball, and others, and those renovations may or may not ever happen.  The renditions that were released were just preliminary concepts, if you read the fine print, there are no concrete plans for anything right now.  Our own fans are somewhat to blame as well; as long as we view basketball as a secondary sport, we will get secondary level of commitment to it from the administration.  I look at the Texas A&M game as the biggest example of this; we beat UGA on the road in OT, play auburn to overtime on the road, upset LSU at home, and come back for a winnable game with everything on the line and the place is empty.  This sends the wrong message.  It tells the players and administration that we show up to watch the other team, not our guys.  There's a lot of talk about Alabama basketball being "cursed," and I alluded to it above when discussing our bad luck, but that "curse" is a losing culture that permeates the administration and fan base.

As many of you know, I am a fan of another sports team that was long considered to be "cursed," the Chicago Cubs.  Much like Alabama basketball, the Cubs were not "cursed," they just had a losing culture due to a lack of commitment from the owners and management (admittedly, at least in my lifetime they didn't really suffer the fan apathy that UA basketball does).  The Cubs played in a quaint tourist attraction of a neighborhood ballpark that lacked both the modern amenities and revenue streams that their competitors were able to take advantage of.  They had one of the smallest scouting staffs in all of baseball.  Every spring, thousands of fans would flock to Hohokam park in Mesa, AZ for spring training.  I attended games there myself, it was an average, "good enough," middle of the pack type facility for spring camp.  We had a few good players over the years and would occasionally have an exciting playoff run, but we were generally content to watch mediocre baseball in our beautiful ballpark while guzzling beer and having a good time.  We lost a lot of games over the decades, but not many parties.

Early in the last decade, the Tribune Company sold the team to the Ricketts family, who hired noted "curse buster" Theo Epstein from the Red Sox.  Wrigley Field was renovated and upgraded.  Despite the objections of the fans, myself included, video screens and advertising were added, neighborhood properties were bought and renovated, and new revenue streams were created.  The Cubs abandoned HohoKam Park in Arizona and built a huge compound that is widely considered the gold standard of spring training facilities.  I've been there a few times and it blows the previous facility out of the water, it's truly state of the art.  The scouting staff more than doubled.  In 2014, first year manager Rick Renteria had an exciting young squad that had a winning second half of the season and was showing a lot of promise.  He was fired, because Theo saw proven winner Joe Maddon was available and pounced on him.  The final piece of the puzzle was in place, and we threw literally one of the top 10 largest parties in the history of mankind at the conclusion of the 2016 season.

I say all of this, because Alabama basketball has a similar opportunity right now as the Cubs did a few years ago.  Hohokam Park=Coleman Coliseum, Rick Renteria=Nate Oats, and Joe Maddon=John Beilein.

In my ideal world, Greg Byrne, with the BOT's backing, would announce we are moving on from Coleman and build a new state of the art facility.  I get they want it to stay in the same place, but unlike Wrigley, Coleman doesn't have the pleasing aesthetics, atmosphere, or the history.  It's time to move on, build a new arena, and it should be the nicest in the SEC in all respects.  I like Coach Oats and I hope he does well, but the jury is still out, and there's an available coach who has proven he can take a power 5 "football school" to consistent NCAA tournaments and has made two final fours.  He's going to be coaching somewhere in college soon, probably next year, so it may as well be at Alabama.  Is that fair to Coach Oats?  No, absolutely not.  It wasn't fair to Rick Renteria either, but you don't build a winning culture and break curses by being "fair" or "loyal."

I know this is mostly a fairy tale fantasy.  The reality is we're not going to have a new "owner," or massive change in the Board of Trustees, and the fans aren't every going to demand such drastic actions.  So I will continue to support Coach Oats, and hope against hope that he becomes the next Billy Donovan.

Most importantly, I encourage everyone to follow the CDC guidelines and practice social distancing, but remember "social distancing" doesn't have to mean "social isolation."  Find ways to connect with your fellow man, look after your loved ones, and don't neglect your mental health.  I hope you all stay healthy and are able to endure the economic hardships that most of us are dealing with as well.  It's hard to imagine right now, but there will be Alabama basketball to discuss again, and we'll be here.

Roll Tide.

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