Rick Pitino changed college basketball forever; could this coach follow his lead?
One coach is a 46-year-old former high school math teacher who less than a decade ago was selling Cheetos out of his classroom to fund the school’s basketball program. The other is a 68-year-old Hall of Famer who has coached seven teams to the Final Four.
In many ways, when Iona’s Rick Pitino peers across the sideline Saturday at Alabama’s Nate Oats, he’s seeing a younger version of himself — brash, innovative and unafraid to rankle the establishment.
Beyond the outsized personalities, the game between the No. 2 Crimson Tide and No. 15 Gaels provides an intersection of basketball revolutions from different generations. Pitino’s 3-point revolution traces back nearly 35 years, while Oats’ shot chart that religiously abstains from the mid-range game is just starting to take hold in college basketball.
Back in 1987, Pitino’s Providence team rode the sport’s cutting edge to the Final Four. Providence averaged nearly eight more 3-point shots per game (19.6) that season than any team in the Big East. The next closest major conference team in that 1986-87 season, Kentucky, averaged five fewer 3-pointers per game than Providence.
In leading Alabama to the SEC regular season and conference titles this season, Oats has become a darling of the analytics set with his devotion to avoiding mid-range shots. The Tide shoot 88% of their shots either at the rim — dunks or layups — or from the 3-point line. That leads the nation by more than 2%.
Could the 2021 Alabama team end up changing basketball the same way Providence did in 1987?
“If they go to the Final Four or win the whole thing, it’s going to revolutionize the way a bunch of coaches think about it,” said Ken Pomeroy, the founder of the indispensable statistical site KenPom.com.
Not surprisingly, statistics was one of the math classes Oats taught in high school. These days, he has drawn significant attention in the basketball statistics crowd for Alabama’s fidelity to either bunnies or heaves. Oats has instilled the area between the paint and arc as a no-fly zone. Alabama’s shot charts are essentially a dense fog hovering over the basket and scattered clouds across the 3-point line.
And in reflecting on his philosophy, Oats paid respect to Pitino’s role in the sport’s evolution. He said he watched Pitino’s instructional tapes back in high school.
“Pitino was the first one to embrace the 3-point line from back in his Providence days,” Oats told Yahoo Sports. “He was the first one in college that really started shooting the 3 a lot.”
Oats is hardly the bookish mold of a stereotypical math teacher. He has emerged as a blunt-force personality this season as he consistently and refreshingly operates without a filter. He poked fun at Duke when it went on pause amid early struggles before later issuing an apology to Mike Krzyzewski. His expletive-spiked send-off to LSU coach Will Wade after winning the SEC title on Sunday went viral and captured the raw emotion that fuels Oats.
Some may say he has shown the bravado of a young Pitino, who picked plenty of fights in the old Big East on his way up the ladder. Pitino told Yahoo Sports he hadn’t heard of Oats until the controversy with Krzyzewski earlier this season. But the Tide have commanded the Hall of Fame coach’s respect.
“He’s done a fabulous job,” Pitino said by phone Tuesday afternoon. “It’s really taken advantage and exploited the weakness of defenses that can’t defend the ball and mismatches that can’t contain the ball.”
Pomeroy, the statistical Yoda, went as far to predict that this Alabama team could end up more transformative than Providence in 1987.
Essentially, Alabama basketball is a Daryl Morey fever dream come alive in college, as Morey’s former Rockets teams ushered the notion of ignoring the mid-range shot into the mainstream. The philosophy is essentially that if you are going to take a lower-percentage shot away from the rim, it may as well be worth more points.
Alabama’s 88.3% avoidance of mid-range is the 10th-highest mark of the past decade in college basketball, according to statistics provided by Pomeroy. None of those teams — like 2018 Belmont (89.7), 2017 Savannah State (89.6) and 2014 Princeton (89.3) — have a fraction of the national resonance of an Alabama team that could race to the Final Four.
Are we on the cusp of another revolution in college basketball? Pomeroy estimates there are about 20 college coaches who’d prefer to play with the same statistical devotion as Oats. (Not all can because of personnel.) If Alabama rolls deep in the tournament, he predicts that number could escalate past 100, which is nearly a third of the sport.
This strategy, of course, takes skilled and versatile players. And Pomeroy is quick to point out Alabama has plenty, led by SEC player of the year Herb Jones, a 6-foot-8 positional chameleon.
“We walked into some pretty good personnel who play the way we want to play,” said Oats, who is in his second season in Tuscaloosa. “You have to have guys who can beat guys off the dribble, get the ball in the paint and you want to have shooters.”
What excites Pomeroy as much as Alabama’s strict adherence to the statistical tenet of avoiding mid-range shots is how Alabama’s defense has dominated while playing an uptempo style. A decade ago, around the time Butler reached its second Final Four under Brad Stevens, Pomeroy emerged as a household name in college basketball. He popularized statistics based on points per possession, which eliminated the variable of tempo and gave a better accounting of a team’s efficiency. Alabama’s defense ranks No. 172 in college basketball by giving up nearly 70 points per game, but the Tide are No. 2 in Pomeroy’s statistics adjusted for their frenetic tempo. Essentially, it proves a team can play at breakneck speed and still be elite defensively, which Pomeroy called “exhilarating.”
“They’re a very uptempo team that’s very good defensively,” he said. “That confuses a lot of people. On a per-possession basis, they’re very good. It’s just hard to process. The backbone of my statistical work is identifying those teams.”
Swearing off the mid-range game isn’t new to basketball. It helped change the NBA into the wide-open and entertaining product we’ve seen in recent years. That philosophical devotion hasn’t been seen on a similar scale in college. How soon could that change?
“It’s a strategy that uses available talent in college basketball very well,” said an NBA executive who has been intrigued by Alabama. “You can throw out four guards and a small-ball center. To me, it’s a good thing for the sport. You don’t need Evan Mobley. You’re playing a higher tempo, and it’s a fun style to watch that gets guys ready for the NBA.”
On Saturday, Hinkle Fieldhouse on the campus of Butler will provide the historic backdrop to showcase basketball’s past revolution and a burgeoning one. Pitino is back in the spotlight after an overseas exile in the wake of Louisville’s involvement in the federal basketball scandal.
“This is my last stop in college basketball,” he said. “This is a great way to end a long career.”
Oats’ ascension appears to be just beginning, as he has reached four NCAA tournaments in six head-coaching seasons. He led Buffalo to the school’s only two victories in NCAA history, upsetting No. 4 Arizona in 2018 and dispatching No. 11 Arizona State the next year.
This season marks Oats’ best chance at a deep run. “We can definitely win the whole thing,” Oats said. “Don’t take that as me predicting that we’re going to. We have to put both sides of the ball together for six games, which is not always easy to do. But we definitely can.”
That kind of run may indelibly alter the way the game is fundamentally played. As one revolutionary tactician coaches out his twilight, another is on the cusp of pushing his career and perhaps the sport into a new stratosphere.
More from Yahoo Sports: