TUSCALOOSA — As is required on most job sites, Alabama kept its hard hat on while working over No. 4 Auburn on Wednesday night, as did its raucous and overcrowded student section.
Much like the 500 or so fans that arrived early to take advantage of the team’s “hard hat” promotion, the Crimson Tide (9-7, 2-2 SEC) embodied its first-year head coach’s yeoman-like approach. Alabama never let up and secured the first signature win of the Nate Oats era with a 83-64 upset at a sold-out Coleman Coliseum.
The promotional hard hats, a cheaper replica of the Osha-worthy white hard hat awarded to the Crimson Tide player with the most “blue collar points” after each game, further represent the working man mentality Oats brought with him from Buffalo.
And if Wednesday night’s upset — the Crimson Tide’s first victory over a Top 4 team since beating No. 1 Stanford in the 2004 NCAA tournament — was any indication, that approach has finally taken root.
Alabama’s “blue-collar points” are tallied based on a system Oats brought where deflections, steals, blocks, defensive rebounds, and loose balls retrieved are worth one point apiece, offensive rebounds are 1½ points, floor dives are two points and charges earn four points.
Alabama finished with 100 blue-collar points for just the eighth time this season, and first topping the century mark since the Samford game Dec. 18, thanks in large part to a game-high 31 blue-collar points from junior wing Herb Jones.
“They let me know Herb got (the hard hat award) which is not surprising, I mean he had 12 rebounds and was in there blocking shots and getting deflections,” Oats said. “I know at the half we had 51 (blue-collar points, but) our goal is 120 and at Kentucky we were at 97. “
Jones, who posted his second double-double in the past five games with 14 points and a team-high 12 rebounds, continues to exemplify Oats’ approach, with his 31 blue-collar points Wednesday representing the second-most he’s had in a game all season. He had 37 in the Tide’s 73-71 loss at Penn State on Dec. 14.
Almost as important were Jones’ non-scoring plays, with 11 fouls drawn, including two on charges. Jones made the most of those opportunities, hitting 6 of 10 from the free-throw line as the Tide went 29-of-37 against Auburn (15-1, 3-1 SEC).
Alabama drew five total charges, with Jones’ two charges tying him with graduate senior guard James “Beetle” Bolden for a team-leading 12. Freshman guard Jaden Shackelford drew one early in the first half and sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr. added another to go with his team-leading 25 points ain the win.
“We’re getting really good production in different areas from different guys,” Oats said. “You know, (John) Petty’s not just a shooter anymore, I think he’s a really great two-way player, Herb’s getting healthy and playing great, and both those guys help us rebound the ball really well.”
Petty, the team leader with 116 rebounds after getting seven vs. Auburn, continues to find ways to contribute, even while going 1 of 5 from 3-point range in the win.
“It’s the second game in a row were we only got 21 3s up, it’s not really how we want to play, but with us making over 11 (per game), … I think teams are going to run you off,” Oats said.
While playing more inside-out isn’t necessarily what Oats’ wide-open perimeter attack is designed to do, it’s been working lately with Alabama averaging 36.3 points in the paint the past six games while making an average of 6.7 of 22 from 3-point range over its last three games.
“I’ve always told the guys we’re never going to go into a game saying we need X number of 3s or a certain player needs X number of shots, the game dictates how you play,” Oats said. “Kira got to the rim with no rim protection at all, and they were trying to take away the 3s, so he was able to drive it in there. … So they’re going to have to pick their poison when we’re playing as good as we can be on offense.”
Lewis was 8 of 14 from the field, but only 1 of 2 from 3-point range. Lewis’ dribble-drive attack allowed him to get to the charity stripe. He made 8 of 9 free throws.
Oats’ spread offense not only helps driving lanes for attacking guards like Lewis but negates an opponent’s most prominent big man from around the basket, which proved effective against 6-foot-11 Auburn senior center Austin Wiley.
“They did a good job of bringing our 5-man out away from the basket, putting us in those situations, and Austin struggled with his ball-screen coverage away from the basket, probably more in this game than he has in the past,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “So what you must do then is just like (when) they bring Austin out away from the basket, we need to take advantage of Austin at the basket, and we didn’t do a very good job of taking advantage of him at the rim.”
Wiley finished with 10 points and 13 rebounds in 20 minutes and was in foul trouble much of the game.
Oats now is looking to build off the win.
“I thought they were trying to match our intensity from the beginning in my opinion, and that’s what we want to do,” Oats said. “We’ve been needing a signature win, and we were close a few times — obviously we should’ve had the Florida game. But if we’re going to make a run and try to play in the NCAA tournament, you’ve got to get signature wins. We’re going to have to go get some road wins too. It’s good to get that monkey off our back … but now we have to go on a run and get some (more) wins period.”