During a recent press conference, Nate Oats offered a small glimpse into life as a college basketball coach in the SEC as he discussed what it took to get a game against Gonzaga on Alabama’s nonconference schedule.
In a region of the country where the football calendar governs every Saturday from the first week of September until the final week of December, Oats was mindful of the conflict, and possibly the pushback, that could come from scheduling a marquee basketball game on Dec. 4, the date of the SEC championship football tilt in Atlanta.
But, considering Gonzaga’s success at the highest echelon of the sport, and Alabama’s desire to get there, the opportunity seemed too good to pass up. So the teams hashed out the rest of the deals of a “neutral-neutral” series that opens on Saturday with the 16th-ranked Crimson Tide and third-ranked Bulldogs colliding at the Battle in Seattle. Tipoff at Climate Pledge Arena is 5 p.m. (ESPN2).
“We knew it was going to be on that day from the time we scheduled it. It was the only time we could schedule it, so it is what it is,” Oats said. “We probably won’t have a ton of fans out there, but hopefully it lines up where a lot of people can watch it on TV. I’m sure Gonzaga will have plenty of fans out there, so I don’t think we’ll have any issues filling the arena.”
Yes, it should be a predominantly Gonzaga crowd at the brand new hockey arena in downtown Seattle, which has hosted Seattle University’s home games since its doors opened a few months ago. But things will even out next year, when the teams play in Birmingham, Alabama, approximately 60 miles from Tuscaloosa. The “neutral-site” label is probably misleading in both instances.
The Crimson Tide are bracing for one of the most hostile environments they’ll see during the nonconference schedule – Gonzaga fans snapped up every ticket to the Battle in Seattle within 15 minutes of them being made available to the general public – but the Bulldogs know better than to rely on that as an advantage after nearly stubbing their toe against scrappy Tarleton State in front of a sellout crowd at the Kennel on Monday.
“They’re a great team. They’re a top-10 level team,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of Alabama. “Nate’s done an amazing job getting that thing going. They’ve got a high, high, high-octane offense and they will not be this pace, I guarantee you that. Incredible guard play and some really skilled athletes inside, so it’ll be a handful and I guess they’ll watch this film, want to press up against us and we’ll see how we handle that.”
The Crimson Tide are coming off a run to the Sweet 16, where they lost to UCLA 88-78 in overtime playing on the heels of Gonzaga-Creighton at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Alabama’s new roster features only two players who started in that game, guards Jaden Shackelford and Keon Ellis, but a third guard, Jahvon Quinerly, played a key backup role scoring 20 points off the bench.
All three guards – Shackelford (18.0), Quinerly (14.6) and Ellis (13.3) – are averaging double figures for an Alabama team that’s scoring 85.7 points per game and ranks No. 11 nationally in adjusted offense, according to KenPom.
Gonzaga ranks No. 2 in that same category and is still averaging 86.7 points even after sputtering on offense in a 64-55 win over Tarleton State. With four double-digit scorers on Few’s roster – Drew Timme (17.4), Julian Strawther (14.0), Chet Holmgren (13.8) and Rasir Bolton (11.6) – Saturday’s game has the potential to become a fast-paced offensive marathon.
Asked how Saturday’s nonleague test against Gonzaga compares to others he’s had as Alabama’s coach, Oats responded “I’d say it’s the hardest one I’ve had, but I’m looking forward to it.”
He added: “Our players want to play the best, they feel like they’re some of the best players in the country, so do I. So we need to test them against the best.”
Even if Alabama finds a way to match Gonzaga in the backcourt, doing so in the frontcourt promises to be a greater challenge. In their last game, a blowout win over Miami, the Crimson Tide started 6-foot-6 sophomore forward Juwan Gary next to 7-foot freshman center Charles Bediak, but Oats hinted that Alabama could also lean on graduate forward Noah Gurley, a 6-foot-8 Furman transfer who started the first five games of the season.
Addressing Gonzaga’s one-two punch of Chet Holmgren and Drew Timme, Oats said “Timme will beat you up inside and has got all the moves and counters and can score it well. Holmgren is long and athletic, but can shoot 3’s, take you off the dribble, obviously can post up smaller guys. But he’s more of a skilled guy.
“They’re both very good players in their own right and they’re both tough matchups and tough covers, but this will be a good test for our bigs, defensively. We’ve got some younger bigs and Noah’s the most experienced guys we have. He’s going to have to play really well this game.”
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