On March 24, 2019, the winningest team in UB men’s basketball history walked off the floor for the final time.
That squad — led by senior guard CJ Massinburg and senior forward Nick Perkins — racked up a school-record 32 wins and earned a coveted spot in the Associated Press rankings.
Following the game, the team’s head coach, Nate Oats, departed for the University of Alabama.
In the two years since, UA has gone from ninth place in the Southeastern Conference to a top-five national ranking. Meanwhile, UB has dropped from March Madness contender to NIT bound.
Oats, who was named a finalist for the Naismith Coach of the Year award this week, was undoubtedly the X-factor for the Bulls, and now the Crimson Tide. The 46-year-old Watertown, WI native is finally getting the credit he deserves.
Oats uses data-driven analytics to place an emphasis on making three-point shots, which are becoming more prevalent, and playing a fast-paced offense, and has been able to translate the success of his 2018-19 Bulls squad to this year’s Crimson Tide team, who are viewed by many as potential Final Four contenders.
The Bulls attempted 28.8 three-pointers and made 9.7 per game during the 2018-19 season, which ranked seventh and 24th in the country respectively.
The 2018-19 Bulls also ranked fifth in the nation in scoring and 13th in pace of play, averaging 84.2 points and 76.2 possessions per game.
With Oats at the helm, this season’s Crimson Tide squad’s numbers in pace, three-point shooting and three-point defense are strikingly resemblant to those of UB’s 2018-19 squad.
Alabama plays with the 11th fastest pace in the nation, averaging 77.1 possessions per game. They also attempt 30.2 three-pointers and make 10.7 per game, both second in the nation.
Oats has led Alabama to a 35.1% three-point percentage, just 2.6% higher than the 33.7% from the 2018-19 Bulls team.
But this year’s Crimson Tide squad has taken the next step in terms of three-point shooting, with 40.2% of their points coming from three-point range, compared to 34.5% from the 18-19 Bulls squad.
Oats knows the importance of the three-point shot to his high-powered offenses, so his teams also know how to defend the three at an elite level.
This year’s Alabama squad is 10th in the country in three-point defense, allowing just 28.8% of opponent’s shots from deep to find the net. The 2018-19 Bulls allowed an opponent three-point percentage of 29.3%, ranking ninth in the nation that season.
Oats also emphasizes the importance of generating turnovers, as the 2020-21 Crimson Tide hold opponents to a .697 assist to turnover ratio and his former Bulls squad held opponents to a .680 ratio, 13th and fourth in the nation respectively.
The combination of three-point defense and generating of turnovers has allowed Oats to have some of the most efficient defenses in basketball at both UB and Bama.
The 18-19 Bulls has a defensive efficiency rating of .936, which ranked 27th in the nation while this year’s Alabama team has a defensive efficiency of .905, currently 18th in the country.
Through an innate ability to connect with his players, understand his personnel and utilize advanced statistics, Oats has become a generational talent at the head coaching position.
His emphasis on the three-pointer is evident in everything from Alabama’s performance in games to their practices behind the scenes, with scrimmages rewarding those who take high percentage shots either in the paint or at the three-point arc.
These kinds of drills and practice habits show how Alabama avoids the statistically inefficient mid-range jump shot 88.3% of the time in favor of the more efficient three-pointer.
It’s fitting that Oats’ Alabama team faces Rick Pitino and the Iona Gaels in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, as Pitino revolutionized the way people look at three-point shooting in college basketball with Providence in 1987.
Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports asks, “Are we on the cusp of another revolution in college basketball?”
Thamel spoke with Oats about Pitino’s influence on his three-point philosophy.
“Pitino was the first one to embrace the three-point line from back in his Providence days,” Oats said. “He was the first one in college that really started shooting the three a lot.”
Oats has taken Pitino’s initial creation and turned it into his own highly-potent Death Star. Today, he faces the originator in a matchup of college basketball’s past facing its future.
Those who watched Oats coach at Buffalo know how special he is, and now he has the national spotlight to show it.
With No. 2 seed Alabama poised for a breakout performance in the NCAA Tournament, all eyes are on the Crimson Tide.
Nate Oats has been a generational talent at head coach for a while, now people are finally noticing.
Anthony DeCicco is the senior sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Anthony DeCicco is the Editor-in-Chief of The Spectrum. His words have appeared in outlets such as SLAM Magazine. In 2020, he was awarded First Prize for Sports Column Writing at the Society of Professional Journalists' Region 1 Mark of Excellence Awards. In his free time, he can be found watching ‘90s Knicks games and reading NFL Mock Drafts at 3 a.m.