TUSCALOOSA — Sitting inside the Alabama men’s basketball team locker room recovering from another arduous workout under new head coach Nate Oats, sophomore wing John Petty went to his phone to remember exactly what he was getting himself into.
Watching videos of how Oats ran things at Buffalo, Petty was once again reminded of the breakneck pace and up-and-down approach he brought to the game. Comparing clips, Petty and several teammates witnessed the attack-style shooting and defensive mentality that made the Bulls one of the nation’s elite transition teams in the country, and a consistent mid-major contender in the NCAA Tournament the last few years.
Petty’s heart, still pounding in his chest following one of the most exhausting practices of his life, began to beat even faster as he envisioned himself finding success within Oats’ system at Alabama. It all served to reinforce the decision Petty made days earlier to withdraw his name from the NCAA transfer portal and remain in Tuscaloosa under the Crimson Tide’s new regime.
“We were all like, if we just get in here and do what we’re supposed to do, we have a high chance to make it back to the big dance or winning the SEC or having a winning record this season,” Petty said Wednesday following the team’s first open practice of the offseason.
Taking full advantage of the NCAA’s four-hour-per-week allowance for practice during the offseason, Alabama’s remodeled staff has been putting its stamp on the program through a pair of one-hour practices twice a day two days a week over the last month, slowly implementing Oats’ personal brand of basketball with mostly encouraging results less than three months into the job.
“I just think the culture’s gotten a lot better over the last 2½ months or so where guys want to come in on their own because they know they’re going to have the freedom to actually use what they’re working on in the games, and we’re encouraging them to shoot 3s, so they’re in and working hard,” Oats said Wednesday. “So, I’ve been pleasantly surprised how well some of the guys have progressed just in the 2½ months since we’ve been here.”
Shooting the ball well from the perimeter is of the utmost importance within Oats’ more spread-out offensive system, and thanks to a dedication to volume shooting, even some of Alabama’s more traditional bigs have taken to the new approach.
“We explained to our guys, if you look at the way we played at Buffalo, our bigs shot a lot of 3s, so we’re encouraging that,” Oats said, pointing out junior center Galin Smith and redshirt freshman center Javian Davis-Fleming — both tipping the scales at 6-foot-9 and nearly 250 pounds — have already made great strides with their outside shot.
“Fleming can actually shoot, and he’s a gym rat, that’s been real encouraging. I couldn’t see any film on him because he didn’t play because he redshirted, but he’s in the gym all the time and I love gym rats,” Oats added. “But Galin has come in and actually worked a lot (on his shooting), as has (junior wing) Herb (Jones).”
Among the most significant improvements has been from Jones, who had one of the worst 3-point shooting percentages on the team last season at just 28.6 percent but is already shooting better than 50 percent from 3 during a weekly exercise Oats implemented called the NBA 100, improving his total from 44 to 59 out of 100 attempted 3s last week.
“That’s a huge goal for me,” Jones said of improving his 3-point shooting.
Added Oats: “I think with the space on the floor, opening it up, is going to help Herb (Jones) out quite a bit. (And) I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well Alex (Reese) has played on the perimeter, he can really make reads and I think he’s going to be really good, can play the 4 and shoots it well. I like the guys we have.”
The 6-9, 238-pound Reese — who missed all of spring workouts recovering from “minor” knee surgery — has been a welcomed surprise given his size and versatility, all of which could help the junior forward fit into the new four-guard, one-big system Alabama will be utilizing under Oats.
“Reese has surprised me with how good he is, he can actually make plays like a true 3-4 with his size and his reads on some ball screens,” Oats said. “We used to run a lot of 4-5 ball screens at Buffalo, but our 4s were more like 2-guards, so I think he can do some of that stuff. He’s been a little surprising in that way. I did like him on film with his upside, because he can shoot it with his length.”
So, while Oats has only been on campus a couple of months, and the offseason turnover has brought an influx of new faces to the Tide roster, the ability to see some early fruits of their labor take root has been especially encouraging, both for Oats and the handful of holdovers that elected to stick it out under the new regime.
All of which has served to further reinforce everything Oats said he’d do at Alabama his first week on the job.
“He basically just showed us a few (Buffalo) clips from last year, how they ran the floor, how they got out in transition, how they did things, and that’s mostly what we like to do,” Petty said. “We’ve got a lot of athletes, we’ve got a lot of guys that can shoot, and we’ve got guys that can run the floor, so that all seemed and looked fun to us, and we’re just ready for the season to start and put all this in play and put together.”