TUSCALOOSA — Alabama’s Nate Oats made it clear both in his post-game press conference and in meetings with his team in the hours and days following Wednesday’s signature upset of Auburn — the win was important, but it won’t matter as much if more don’t follow.
Sitting at .500 four games into the Southeastern Conference schedule, the Crimson Tide (9-7, 2-2 SEC) enter Saturday’s home matchup against Missouri (9-7, 1-3 SEC) looking to build upon the momentum created by knocking off the rival Tigers, the last remaining unbeaten Power 5 team entering the week, and not let the emotionally-charged victory be its high point of the season.
“I really addressed it the night of the game, after the game, yesterday, today, we’ll be addressing it again tomorrow,” Oats said Friday afternoon. “We’ve got to make sure our energy is up, we’ve got to make sure we’re not living on past success. If we come in lose to Missouri (on Saturday), the Auburn game really didn’t mean that much.”
And while a "quality" win over a previous undefeated and Top-5 ranked rival is certainly thrilling, it'll only count for something if Alabama can use it as a resume booster and stay in contention for an NCAA Tournament bid down the stretch of the season.
But for that to remain a possibility, it'll require the Crimson Tide sustaining success over the final two months of the regular season, which isn't always the easiest of endeavors.
“To me, it’s a lot harder to handle success than it is to handle failure,” Oats said. “When you get beat, you come in with a chip on your shoulder ready to fight, so a lot of teams can get beat and come back and get a win. It’s hard to win, come back and get even better, play even harder, know you have to still improve even when you win to win again. We’re trying to instill that here.”
And while that remains somewhat of a work in progress, it’s something a handful of the Crimson Tide veterans know just takes a different game-to-game mindset.
“We just can’t let a win like Auburn get to our head,” graduate senior guard James “Beetle” Bolden said Friday. “(We have to) stay level-headed, be mature about it and just continue to trust Coach Oats’ plan and take it game-by-game, and hopefully we’ll start to put together wins.”
Of course, consistency hasn’t necessarily been one of Alabama’s strengths in its first season under Oats. After opening 3-4 in November, the Tide closed out 2019 with a strong 4-1 showing in December before a return to its up-and-down play by splitting the first four conference games of SEC play.
Still, Oats has seen signs of positive growth over the past couple of weeks, even if his team remains consistently inconsistent to start league play.
“I think if you look at our last 10 games, we’ve won 7 out of 10, with the three losses at Penn State by 2, … at Florida in double-overtime up 21 (in the first half),” Oats said. “I think we’ve given an effort in all of them. That was the deal early in the year, I think our up-and-down was more (about) effort. But when you’re giving effort every game, whether you make shots or miss shots, you’re still playing well enough to win.”
That said, it'd help if the Crimson Tide can get back to shooting better than .400 from 3-point range after seeing a drop-off shooting a combined 23.8-percent (10-of-42) from 3-point range the past two games.
“We’ve been talking a lot our shot selection," Oats said, "we’ve got to get better shots, more uncontested shots, if we can do that the shots will start dropping like they were (before SEC play).”
At least part of proper shot selection is rooted in maturity, which is something Bolden sees plenty of from his younger teammates.
“I just lead by example, honestly,” Bolden said. We don’t have any guys at all that go the other route, so it’s kind of easy for me to talk to these guys and show them what I’ve been through in my experiences, … so it’s easy for me to talk to those guys because they’re mature about it.”
To what degree will certainly be tested Saturday and moving forward throughout SEC, as Alabama looks to turn one big win into a run of them.
“We’ll show we’re really maturing if we can follow up a great win against Auburn with a great performance against Missouri,” Oats said.