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Sears return to Alabama basketball clinches Nate Oats as master roster builder | Goodbread

On March 9, a few minutes after Alabama basketball closed its regular season with a 92-88 overtime home win over Arkansas on Senior Day, coach Nate Oats posed for a photograph with the Crimson Tide's senior class. To his immediate right was center Grant Nelson, who weeks later would lead UA's NCAA Tournament win over North Carolina. Next to Grant was sharpshooter Latrell Wrightsell Jr., who scored 20 points against the Razorbacks. And to Oats' left was Mark Sears, Alabama's top player, who poured in 121 points over five NCAA tourney games, almost exactly on his season average of 20.5.

All three had a year of college eligibility remaining, but at the time, even the most optimistic of Alabama fans had probably written off any hope of retainment. If the NCAA transfer portal has taught them anything, it's to assume attrition first. The portal, along with the lure of the NBA, has decimated Oats' rosters year after year. He's done a remarkable job replenishing the lost talent with portal additions of his own, along with top-notch recruiting in the high school ranks, but hanging onto veterans with options has typically been as much of a struggle for Oats as any other college coach.

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That is, until Sears announced Wednesday that he will come back to Alabama for one last season, joining Nelson and Wrightsell, who've chosen to do the same. Corralling that trio for another year in Tuscaloosa represents a next-level mastery of the roster-building process for Oats. Just as important as his prolific, analytics-driven offense has been his ability to take rosters left in tatters by the portal and reconstitute them into the next iteration of winning Alabama basketball. Getting Sears back, along with Nelson and Wrightsell, gives Oats a core of veterans for next season who can offer something portal additions can't: knowledge of that offense, and a better understanding of what Oats wants and demands.

That Sears plainly didn't get the feedback from NBA scouts that he'd hoped for doesn't mitigate Oats' accomplishment in securing his return. Between the point guard's NIL opportunities in the transfer portal and the lure of professional basketball overseas, Sears easily could've chosen a third door. And nobody would've been surprised. It was, after all, a year ago that Oats was somewhat blindsided by the decisions of Jahvon Quinerly to transfer to Memphis, and of Charles Bediako to remain NBA draft-eligible. Bediako went undrafted; he needed another year at Alabama as much as Alabama needed another year from him, as his defensive presence around the rim was sorely missed last season.

This time, Oats managed to unite another strong cast of newcomers with as much or more returning core talent than he's ever brought back before. A core with Final Four experience. Expectations should, and will, be high.

Also returning next year is forward Jarin Stevenson, who, like Sears, tested his NBA draft stock. After a freshman season in which Stevenson flashed impressive potential offensively — he scored 19 in Alabama's Elite Eight win over Clemson — but struggled defensively, his withdrawal from the draft was predictable and expected. Less predictable, however, was his return to Alabama, given the lure of the portal. While Stevenson's return isn't nearly as impactful as Sears', he could command 20-plus minutes per game next season if he develops into more of a stopper defensively.

Oats, for his part, couldn't be more pleased.

Never afraid to speak boldly, he suggested two weeks ago that Alabama could win a national title next year with the talent on hand, and that was before he knew of Sears' decision. To that assessment, he now adds a returning floor general who scores 20 points a game.

Bringing top players into the program has always been a strong suit for Oats. Now, he's retaining them, too.

Tuscaloosa News sport columnist Chase Goodbread.
Tuscaloosa News sport columnist Chase Goodbread.

Tuscaloosa News columnist Chase Goodbread is also the weekly co-host of Crimson Cover TV on WVUA-23. Reach him at cgoodbread@gannett.com. Follow on X.com @chasegoodbread.

This article originally appeared on The Tuscaloosa News: Sears return to Alabama clinches Nate Oats as master roster builder