Alabama hoops players ‘learning to check their egos at the door’

Despite being seeded 6th in the NCAA tournament, the Alabama men’s basketball team was largely forgotten by fans last season.

Stunning losses to weaker opponents foreshadowed a four-game-ending losing streak at the end of the season, capped by upset losses to Vanderbilt and Notre Dame in March. Months later, coach Nate Oats explained how team chemistry was being impacted by players becoming more “concerned about their personal, individual stats and goals.”

Three players went to the NBA draft – and only one, JD Davison, was selected. Five more entered the transfer portal and the team that returned to the Coleman Coliseum this fall looks markedly different.

So far, the product of the changeover is evident. Alabama ranks 18th in the Associated Press poll and 16th in the Coaches Poll. A longer and more athletic group has an early 13th place on KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, up from a 92nd place last season. A focus on improving shooting has produced inconsistent results, but Alabama is ranked 22nd nationally on KenPom’s offensive efficiency metric.

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After victories over Longwood, Liberty and South Alabama, the Tide will be looking to repeat last season’s 4-0 start when they take on Jacksonville State Friday night at 8pm CT in Tuscaloosa.

But after last year’s hot start fizzled after early losses to Iona, Memphis and Davidson, there are signs that something might be different behind the scenes at this team.

“I think this group is poised to learn a little bit better than last year’s group,” security guard Jahvon Quinerly said Tuesday night. “Guys who are just willing to take constructive criticism, whether it’s from a coach or a teammate. This is crucial for a good program.”

Oats have noticed the same thing.

“I think this year our boys are learning to check their egos at the door and let’s just get better,” Oats said Thursday. “Let’s make the team better and let’s get better individually. You can’t get better without being coached, without being criticized if you will. Let’s do it constructively to make the boys better. Let’s just not go on guys. But I think getting it, giving it, it’s all been pretty good so far this year.

Fourth-year coach gave the example of Quinerly, who instructed freshman guard Rylan Griffen on screen angles and timing during Thursday’s practice, and sixth-year forward Noah Gurley, who instructed JUCO transfer Nick Pringle on the coaches’ wishes trained.

“It was a lot better, to be honest,” Oats said. “I think guys are more willing to embrace it and we have guys who are more willing to try and coach guys.

“If you don’t want to receive constructive criticism, guys will stop giving it to you and at that point you won’t get any better. I tell guys a quote from Bob Cousy all the time: Criticism is like gold, worry if you don’t have it. As soon as I stop coaching you, you should start worrying.

“The same goes for your teammates. If you react negatively to guys who are trying to help you get better, well, they will stop trying to help you get better. If your teammates aren’t trying to improve you and your coach isn’t trying to improve you, there’s probably no place for you on the team.”

Jacksonville State, ranked 228th in KenPom, opened the season with a win over Shorter before losing on the road to Illinois-Chicago on Monday night. This is the third straight season the Gamecocks are coming to Tuscaloosa after Alabama had a 24-point win in 2020 and a six-point win last season.

Alabama travels to Portland, Oregon, next week for the Phil Knight Invitational, where it will play Michigan State on Thanksgiving night.

“I think we all understand the goal that we want to achieve this year,” Gurley said on Thursday. “We understand that we have not yet reached our potential. I think no one takes offense at any criticism that comes. I get chewed through by the coach through to the freshmen. At the end of the day, everything is out of love and out of a spirit of victory.”

Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @micerodak.

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