March Madness: Nate Oats finally led Alabama to its first Final Four. Now Dan Hurley, UConn await in Phoenix

Alabama fended off Clemson 89-82 on Saturday night to reach the program’s first Final Four just five years after Oats arrived

LOS ANGELES — Nate Oats stood in a back hallway at Arena late on Saturday night with a trophy in one hand, a custom Alabama WWE championship belt he borrowed from Rylan Griffen in the other, and a net cut down from the hoop draped around his neck.

“My grandfather would be proud,” he said smiling.

After five years and several close runs that fell just short, Oats pulled it off. The Crimson Tide who beat Clemson 89-82 on Saturday night, have finally reached the Final Four for the first time in program history.

Oats landed at Alabama in 2019 following a few dominant runs with Buffalo in the MAC, and he turned the Crimson Tide into a true contender in the SEC almost immediately.

With how dominant Nick Saban’s football teams were, though, it didn’t get as much attention as it perhaps should have right away. Oats knew that would probably be the case going into the job. So he embraced it as best he could.

“It never nagged me or bothered me that football was huge at Alabama. I love it,” he said on Saturday. “It’s better for recruiting. It’s better for everything for us. I tried to learn from it.

“And different people would make comments. Football, football. But only 18 national championships behind them, we have a few to catch up on. Let’s just keep grinding. Let’s get to a Final Four first, and let’s put ourselves on a big stage.”

He's now done just that.

The Crimson Tide, despite losing four of their last six games entering the tournament and being knocked out of the SEC tournament early, reached just their second ever Elite Eight on Thursday night by knocking off top-seeded North Carolina. Then, behind a hot second half from star Mark Sears and a career night from freshman Jarin Stevenson, they pushed past Clemson to keep their season alive and make it to Phoenix. They had to shoot 10-of-15 from behind the arc in the final 20 minutes, six of which came from Sears, but they got the job done.

It capped what’s been a great stretch of basketball in Tuscaloosa — something the school hasn’t seen in at least 20 years, if not longer. Oats has now won two regular season SEC titles, two conference tournament titles and has been to at least the Sweet 16 in three of his four NCAA tournament appearances with the Crimson Tide. They were a No. 1 seed last season with star Brandon Miller, too, though they fell early to San Diego State in the Sweet 16.

“It’s evident, he’s just a great coach all around,” guard Aaron Estrada said. “He lost a lot from last year, starting with the coaching staff. So for him to rebuild a group like he got us, I think it just goes to show how hardworking he is and how much of a competitor he is.”

Nate Oats has led Alabama to its first ever Final Four in just his fifth season with the program. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos/Getty Images)
Nate Oats has led Alabama to its first ever Final Four in just his fifth season with the program. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos/Getty Images)

With UConn on the horizon, now what?

It won’t be long before Oats and his staff turn their attention to UConn.

Alabama will have to take on the Huskies in the Final Four first on Saturday night. Based on how UConn has looked since winning the national championship last season, that’s going to be a ridiculously tough task.

UConn rolled over Illinois behind a wild 30-0 run in their Elite Eight matchup on Saturday, which marked the program’s 11th straight win and 25th in its last 26 games. The Huskies have won every NCAA tournament game by at least 13 points over the last two seasons, and their closest win this tournament was a 17-point win over Northwestern in the second round.

They are by far the betting favorite to win their second straight national title, which hasn't been done since Florida's run in 2006 and 2007.

“They went on a 30-0 run I heard tonight,” Oats said of UConn on Saturday. “Is that correct? That’s unheard of in the Elite Eight. That’s crazy … His formula is working out pretty well. I’m going to have to figure out that formula myself here soon.”

Oats, of course, has plenty of connections to UConn head coach Dan Hurley. He worked under Bobby Hurley, who he replaced at Buffalo, and he’s been friends with both of the Hurley brothers for years.

“It’s ironic I get to coach against Danny. I don’t know if ‘get’ is the correct word, because they’ve got a pretty good team,” he said. “But I’m in the Final Four and get to go against Danny who helped me get this thing. Obviously Bobby is the one who hired me, but the two of those guys kind of came into college together and have been great to me the whole time.”

If Sears and the Tide can shoot it like they did in the second half on Saturday night, they can hang with just about anybody. But if the shots don’t fall, like in the first 20 minutes, things could get out of hand quickly. Just look at what happened to Illinois on Saturday night at TD Garden.

For now though, at least in the immediate aftermath of their celebration in Los Angeles, Oats isn’t worrying about what’s to come in Arizona.

“I don’t know if it’s truly hit me yet,” Oats said. “Probably won’t hit me until after the Final Four is over, because I’m going to enjoy it tonight and we’ve got to figure out how to beat UConn.”