As Alabama heads to the NCAA tournament, the questions don’t go away, but neither does The Tide’s determination

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE. – After rolling with the same five starters for 22 straight games during a basketball stretch that saw his team rise to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll for the first time in 20 years, Alabama coach Nate Oats made a change just in time ahead for the March madness. Before the Crimson Tide played Friday in their first game of the SEC tournament against Mississippi State, he adjusted his starting lineup for the first time in almost three months, using guard Mark Sears in place of Jaden Bradley.

“It wasn’t necessarily a demotion from Jaden because Jaden came to me last night and said he thought I should start Jahvon,” Oats said after the Crimson Tide dismantled the Bulldogs with little drama. “That’s the kind of group we have. The guys are willing to do whatever they have to do to help the team get better.”

The story is an example of the conflicting images that surround an Alabama basketball team projected as the No. 1 for the NCAA tournament and one of the top favorites to win the national title.

On the one hand, there’s the program, which is marred by the capital murder charges scandal against former player Darius Miles, which stems from the killing of a woman near the university campus in January. Court Certificate bound in February Star freshman forward Brandon Miller and Bradley to the scene despite not being charged with a crime and not considered suspects.

Revelations about Miller’s alleged role in transporting the murder weapon to the scene — and the lack of school punishment for it — have turned Alabama into college basketball’s scorn and created a massive extrajudicial distraction for the SEC’s regular-season champions.

On the other hand, there’s a team that Oats has praised for their selflessness, chemistry, and camaraderie, the team that Miller described as “a family far from home.” It’s Alabama’s version that projects it in preference, one embodied by Bradley and others’ willingness to embrace what it takes for team success, even at personal expense.

When things changed

Miles played in 53 games for Oats over two and a half seasons with the program, but his on-court role was almost nonexistent for the first half of the season before he was promptly fired from the team after shooting. Alabama barely missed a beat without him, winning its next seven SEC games after Miles’ arrest, averaging 19.9 points, adding an anomalous 24-point loss in Oklahoma during the Big 12/SEC challenge.

Weeks passed and the gunfight’s role in the national narrative surrounding basketball in Alabama faded into the background as the Crimson Tide hit No. 1 on February 13. Things changed over the next week. After Miller, the SEC’s Freshman of the Year and a likely lottery pick in the 2023 NBA draft, became embroiled in the controversy, Alabama’s elite faltered in an attempt to complete the regular season.

Peppered with criticism Dealing with the problem took the Crimson Tide overtime to beat low South Carolina by road. They also barely squeaked past Arkansas and Auburn at home, after beating both on the road with larger margins before information about Miller’s presence at the scene of the shooting was released.

Then came a 67-61 loss at Texas A&M to end a regular season in which the Crimson Tide played one of their worst offensive games of the season. The weight of the scandal appeared to be taking its toll on the court as Oats and Miller fought in public.

Oats called Miller’s involvement in the shooting “wrong place, wrong time” and then had to do it clarify his statementswhile Miller continued with a non-musical foreplay tapping ritual until Oats brought it up with the team.

new normal

But Alabama’s performance at the SEC tournament suggested it’s finding a rhythm again on the court and settling into a groove on how to deal with the lingering cloud surrounding the program’s handling of an extrajudicial disaster.

After Miller scored 18 points in Alabama’s quarterfinal win over Mississippi State, the Crimson Tide landed him on the venue’s main interview podium, even after it was revealed during the game that Miles had been indicted by a grand jury. The second question he faced revolved around his own lack of a suspension after the shooting.

“With all due respect, I can’t comment on that,” Miller said.

The next question he and teammate Jahvon Quinerly asked was how the team is reducing turnover. It was a sequence that symbolized the bizarre reality of an elite collegiate basketball team going on amid one of the dirtiest scandals in program history.

To make matters worse, in the weeks between filming and the revelations about Miller’s involvement, Oats had a contract extension making him one of the sport’s 10 highest-paid coaches, which is another signal of institutional support for Oats’ leadership amid the crisis.

“How we got the facts from [law enforcement], this was a decision made based on all the facts we had, of course with my boss (Alabama athletic director), Greg Byrne; his boss, (Alabama President Stuart) Bell; and the Board of Trustees,” Oats said this week of the decision not to impose any suspensions. “And everyone was comfortable, and I mean, based on the information we had, Brandon didn’t break any school or team policies … I was happy with the decision that was made.”

Whether SEC officials feel the same way is unclear. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey addressed the issue this week, admitting he spoke to Byrne on the day of the shooting.

“I don’t share these conversations,” Sankey said. “We have incredible sympathy for the loss of life. This is a tragedy.”

“Incredible Culture”

Alabama’s performances against Mississippi State and Missouri in Saturday’s 72-61 semifinal win may have shown why Alabama — a school that never made the Final Four — has been staunchly supportive of Oats and Miller. Missouri capitalized on a 19-5 run late in the first half and early in the second to build a 35-31 lead before Miller and teammate Noah Clowney took over the game.

The duo scored Alabama’s next 14 points together, immediately turning the contest back in favor of the Crimson Tide and helping them build a comfortable lead they maintained for the rest of the game.

Also crucial to the second half was the play of veteran forward Noah Gurley, who scored five points and grabbed four rebounds after playing just six minutes in the first half without attempting a shot.

After being named a three-time All-SoCon honoree in three seasons with Furman, Gurley moved to Alabama for the 2021-22 season, starting 14 games while playing in all 33 and averaging 18 minutes per contest. This season, with the nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class on campus, his role has diminished, and his production across all categories has also declined.

In Alabama’s last nine games participating in the SEC tournament, Gurley did not play in three. In the six games he played, he averaged just 6.7 minutes and scored three points overall. But in the quarterfinals against Mississippi State, he added 21 minutes and scored 11 points, setting the stage for another day of substantial contributions against Missouri in the semifinals.

“It’s bigger than tires” Gurley tells the Crimson Tide Sports Network. “This team is a family. We’ve been through so much. Minutes are small compared to what we’ve been through. There was nothing negative about not playing.

Criticism of Alabama’s handling of Miller and the aftermath of the shooting that killed Jamea Harris, a 23-year-old mother, will not go away, especially as the Crimson Tide prepares to become the sport’s biggest stage in the NCAA tournament to go.

Neither does Alabama. The Crimson Tide have regained their on-court form in the SEC tournament with a roster that continues to provide Oats with alternative, Alabama-friendly talking points in an effort to fight back the tidal wave of critics provoked by the program’s handling of an out-of-court crisis become.

“I think he embodies our team, to be honest,” Oats said of how Gurley has embraced his changing role. “Incredible culture of guys who only care about their teammates.”

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