Nate Oats took a subtle dig at Kentucky basketball during Final Four week. He isn’t wrong

The SEC basketball scene that new Kentucky coach Mark Pope wanders into next season won’t be anything like the SEC of his playing days.

Back then, the Cats were the undisputed kings of the conference.

In all six of the Rick Pitino-era seasons when UK was eligible for postseason play, the Wildcats won at least one league trophy. In the three years that Pope was on campus, Kentucky won four: the SEC Tournament crown his redshirt year, both the regular-season and tourney titles his first year on the court, and the regular-season (and NCAA) title in his final year as a Cat.

And all that league success came at a peak time for Arkansas, which won a national championship and advanced to two NCAA title games over those three seasons, yet claimed only one of the six league trophies passed out during that span.

Back then, the SEC often came down to Kentucky vs. one or two other programs that popped up to compete with the Cats on a rotating basis. The Razorbacks were UK’s top competition when they entered the league. Florida reached a new level once Billy Donovan got settled in. Other teams had fleeting moments at the top.

Kentucky was a constant, however, and that lasted through much of the Tubby Smith era and most of John Calipari’s tenure.

Over the past few years, things have changed.

And in case anyone was in the dark about that fact, Alabama coach and former high school math teacher Nate Oats offered up a little lesson on recent history when he took the podium at the Final Four in Phoenix last month.

This year’s trip to college basketball’s biggest stage was the first in the history of Alabama’s program, the latest and largest sign yet that the Crimson Tide are probably going to be a real problem for the Wildcats as long as Oats is around.

The day before Bama’s 86-72 loss to eventual national champion UConn in the Final Four, the Tide’s fifth-year coach was asked what he thought advancing to this stage of the NCAA Tournament would do for his program moving forward, from a recruiting perspective.

That was all the opening Oats needed to offer up the full sales pitch.

“Certainly doesn’t hurt,” he said with a smile. “If kids don’t want to be a part of a winning team, I probably don’t want to take ’em. We’ve had one of the more — what would I say? — modern offenses, one of the more recruitable-to offenses in the country over the last five years. We did a study. We improved our guys’ draft stock more than anybody in the country has over the last five years we’ve been there. We have the NBA deal. We’ve had more lottery picks than anybody in the country.”

All of that is accurate. Alabama, it might surprise some, has had three NBA lottery picks over Oats’ first four NBA draft classes, tied for the most nationally with Florida State, while Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and UConn had two each over those four years (and one of UK’s was Shaedon Sharpe).

Bama also had the nation’s highest-scoring offense last season and ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency for most of the campaign, before UConn passed it at the very end.

That all plays well on the recruiting trail. But what really irks the rest of the league were the truths that Oats offered up next.

“We’ve won at a high level,” he continued. “Since I got to the SEC, they’ve given out nine trophies, I think we have four of ’em.”

He offered up that last line in an unassuming manner, as if he wasn’t quite sure the numbers were correct. Obviously, they were, and he knew it.

Oats pointed out that there was no SEC Tournament during his first season in the league due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That left nine trophies to be passed out over his five years in the SEC.

“I think we’ve got four,” he said casually. “Kentucky’s got one. Tennessee’s got two. Auburn’s got two. So we’ve won those championships. We’ve got an offense. We put guys in the pros. Now we’re competing on a national stage in a Final Four to win a national championship.”

Obviously, they didn’t win the national title, but the Crimson Tide did get further than any team in the league had in five years — when Auburn was the last SEC team to make the Final Four — and that podium provided Oats a public forum to pitch his program to future talent.

Surely, mentioning the lesser accomplishments of UK, Tennessee and in-state rival Auburn — arguably, the other top three programs in the league over that span — alongside Bama’s more impressive accolades was no accident.

Oats knew exactly what he was doing — laying claim to the title of top dog in the SEC — and those comments likely would’ve ruffled more feathers if they hadn’t come right when all hell broke loose in Lexington. The next day, Calipari met with Arkansas officials. The day after that, it was clear he would be the Razorbacks’ next coach. And the day after that, Oats pulled his name out of consideration for the Kentucky job, before the position was officially open.

Alabama didn’t win a national title, but Oats got his point across that weekend.

“So there’s not a lot missing in the recruiting pitch now,” he said. “Preston (Murphy) is a big-time recruiter. And he’s certainly using this Final Four run to our advantage, for sure. We’ll see what type of dividends we can gain from it moving forward this spring and summer.”

Alabama head coach Nate Oats has won two SEC regular-season championships and two league tournament titles in the past four seasons.
Alabama head coach Nate Oats has won two SEC regular-season championships and two league tournament titles in the past four seasons.

What’s next for SEC basketball?

When the 2024-25 college basketball season begins, there will be a new king of the SEC.

It won’t be the league’s only coach with a national championship, relocated to Fayetteville in search of his first Final Four in a decade. It won’t be the new coach at Kentucky who is still looking for his first victory in an NCAA Tournament game. It won’t be Tennessee’s Rick Barnes or Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, who split last season’s league hardware.

Alabama, fresh off that Final Four, looks like the team to beat at this early stage of the offseason. Oats talked about that recruiting pitch before last season even ended, and he, Murphy and the rest of the Bama staff have once again worked the transfer portal near-perfectly over the past few weeks.

Oats built last season’s Alabama roster (and coaching staff) pretty much from scratch after a rash of departures following a year in which the Tide earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and swept the SEC regular-season and tournament titles. That made the Final Four run in 2024 a bit of a surprise. Next season, it might be the expectation.

Alabama has already secured the return of key players Grant Nelson and Latrell Wrightsell Jr. The Tide also have the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class — behind only Duke — according to the 247Sports composite rankings. In addition to that, Bama has the country’s No. 7-ranked transfer class, according to 247Sports, a group that features proven big man Cliff Omoruyi and McDonald’s All-American guard Aden Holloway, a former top-20 recruit who flipped to Alabama after spending his freshman season at rival Auburn.

Bama is No. 6 in ESPN’s “Way-Too-Early” Top 25 for next season. CBS Sports ranks the Crimson Tide at No. 8 nationally. Other smart basketball observers say Oats already has a top-five roster for the 2024-25 campaign.

If last season’s leading scorer, Mark Sears, pulls out of the NBA draft and returns to Tuscaloosa, he might be the SEC preseason player of the year, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Alabama should get consideration for the No. 1 ranking nationally going into November.

Expect the Tide to be on the top line when league media members vote in October.

But this conference will have plenty of other formidable teams.

Auburn, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M are all in the current top 20 on both the ESPN and CBS Sports national rankings lists. New league member Texas is No. 20 in ESPN’s rankings and No. 21 at CBS. With Calipari adding to his first Arkansas roster — and more talented additions to come — the Razorbacks have now cracked both of those Top 25s, too.

Once Pope is finished building his first Kentucky roster — Chaz Lanier and Jaxson Robinson loom as potential high-impact additions — it’s expected that the Cats will also be on those lists.

That would be eight Top 25 teams from the SEC, half of the programs in the league.

Oats, who signed a new deal that lasts through the 2029-30 season before leading the Crimson Tide to the Final Four, is sitting on top of the league for the moment, and it looks like he’s building a program that will compete over the long haul. That new contract includes an $18 million buyout for the time being, so it certainly appears the 49-year-old coach will be in Tuscaloosa awhile.

But the landscape across the rest of the league shows it will be next to impossible for any program to achieve the level of SEC dominance that Kentucky has enjoyed so often in past decades.

In addition to Calipari, Barnes, Pearl and Oats, two other league coaches — Chris Beard (Ole Miss) and Porter Moser (Oklahoma) — have coached teams in the Final Four.

Florida’s Todd Golden is viewed as one of the sport’s rising stars. South Carolina’s Lamont Paris is the reigning SEC coach of the year (earning the national honor from the NABC this past season). Texas A&M’s Buzz Williams has plenty of winning on his résumé, and others across the league have earned national respect.

Pope, who spent his first four years at Utah Valley and the past five seasons at BYU, has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game as a head coach. He, along with Vanderbilt’s Mark Byington, Texas’ Rodney Terry and Oklahoma’s Moser, will be coaching their first games in the league next season.

In that electric rally at Rupp Arena last month, Pope made his expectations clear.

“Every coach in America — at every other job in America — stands up at the press conference and they try and moderate expectations,” he said. “We don’t do that here at Kentucky. When Mitch (Barnhart) called me and talked to me about being the head coach here at Kentucky, I understand the assignment. We are here to win banners.

“And as we go through this journey, we’re here to win banners in Nashville, because you guys turn out in Nashville like nobody else, and that matters.”

Nashville, of course, is home to the SEC Tournament for the foreseeable future. Pope’s coach at UK had a 17-1 record with five titles in six years in that event. Pope’s immediate predecessor had plenty of success there, too, but Calipari didn’t even advance to the SEC Tournament title game in any of his final five attempts, often downplaying the event, much to the chagrin of Kentucky fans who have always viewed winning it as a further sign of SEC dominance.

Pope knows that well, and he struck the right note by mentioning its importance from the jump, a line that elicited a loud pop from the adoring Rupp crowd.

But saying and doing are two different things, and this isn’t the SEC of the 1990s or even the 2010s, when Calipari came to town and often had his way within the conference.

Making good on his promise to bring league trophies to Lexington will be no small feat, and — with Oats, Calipari and the rest standing in his way — Pope’s first season back in the SEC is shaping up to be quite the challenge.

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