Only a few minutes after his team’s Sweet 16 face-plant against San Diego State on Friday night, Alabama basketball coach Nate Oats took a seat in front of a microphone and answered eight minutes of basketball-related questions.
Left unasked was the most pertinent one: Was it all worth it?
Was it worth refusing to bench Brandon Miller despite his involvement in a fatal shooting in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 15? Was it worth sullying Oats' reputation and Alabama's reputation to keep playing the star freshman? Was it worth getting buried under a month-long avalanche of negative publicity just to win two NCAA tournament games?
Good luck making that case after Alabama's season crashed to a halt on Friday night well shy of the first Monday night in April. San Diego State's stunning 71-64 upset in the Sweet 16 in Louisville was a reminder that there are no certainties in a single elimination tournament, not even for a No. 1 overall seed led by the best NBA prospect in college basketball.
After Alabama bulldozed three SEC tournament opponents by an average of 17 points and then won its first two NCAA tournament games by 21 and 22, the Crimson Tide encountered a far more determined opponent. The fifth-seeded Aztecs played a near-perfect defensive game, slowing the pace, pressuring the ball, clogging the driving lanes and closing out hard on shooters.
Alabama managed only five points during a season-altering eight-minute second-half stretch, turning a hard-earned nine-point lead into a daunting nine-point deficit. Miller struggled to create any clean looks for himself against the Aztecs’ switching defense, tallying only nine points on a miserable 3-for-19 shooting from the field.
San Diego State’s victory did more than move the Aztecs within a victory of their first Final Four. It also saved the rest of this otherwise delightful, upset-laden NCAA tournament from being overshadowed by the Miller scandal.
Any other year, Oats building a basketball title contender at a football powerhouse might have been one of the tournament’s charming stories. This year, Alabama’s all-out pursuit of its first Final Four has been perceived as an act of defiance.
The shift began last month when news spilled out of a pre-trial hearing that Miller and fellow Alabama freshman Jaden Bradley were at the scene of the shootout that resulted in the death of 23-year-old Jamea Harris. By then, former Alabama basketball player Darius Miles was already facing capital murder charges, as was his friend Michael Davis, who had no affiliation with the basketball program.
A Tuscaloosa police officer testified that Miller delivered the weapon used to kill Harris in the early hours of the morning on Jan. 15. Miles, according to police testimony, had texted Miller, informing him that he had been involved in a dispute and asking him to bring the gun that he left in the backseat of Miller’s car.
The Tuscaloosa district attorney's office has not charged Miller with a crime and police have apparently treated him as a cooperating witness. Miller's attorney said last month that Miller "never touched the gun," and "never knew that illegal activity involving the gun would occur," though the attorney notably stopped short of claiming that Miller didn't see Miles' texts and didn't know the gun was there.
Alabama’s decision not to suspend or penalize Miller has drawn intense scrutiny and backlash. Miller started every game since the fatal shootout, enduring chants of “Lock him up!” during road games and far worse comments on social media.
When Miller arrived at Legacy Arena in Birmingham on the eve of his NCAA tournament debut, he was accompanied by an armed security guard wearing a Crimson Tide basketball polo shirt. Oats explained the security guard's presence was a byproduct of anonymous threats that Miller had received.
“If you guys saw some of what I've seen sent his way, I think you would understand,” the Alabama coach said.
The deeper Alabama advanced in the NCAA tournament, the further the media focus strayed from basketball. On the eve of the San Diego State game, Alabama players and coaches fielded questions from reporters about gun education within the program and about Alabama football coach Nick Saban's remarks that some thought cast shade on Oats.
Maybe the most intriguing response from Oats came when he was asked if his team was able to enjoy participating in the NCAA tournament.
“Yeah, we’re having a blast,” said Oats with all the enthusiasm of a dental patient about to have a root canal.
“We're winning games. We know who we are. We've got a great group of guys that lean on each other, that have become close," he added. "We've never lost sight of the fact that we have a heartbreaking situation surrounding the program … but, you know, you play basketball from the time you were young to get to these moments, and we're going to enjoy these moments.”
At that time, the Crimson Tide seemed to have a gilded path to the national title game. They could advance out of the South region without facing an opponent seeded higher than No. 5 and then get to Houston and find either Kansas State or Florida Atlantic waiting in the Final Four.
On Friday night, that all came crashing down in a hail of errant jump shots, costly turnovers and missed boxouts. It was the third consecutive tournament in which Alabama has been at the wrong end of a big upset as the Tide lost to 11th-seeded Notre Dame in the first round last year and to 11th-seeded UCLA in the 2021 Sweet 16.
When Miller was asked to describe Alabama’s season after Friday’s loss, he labeled it “pretty successful.”
Oats, when asked the same question, called it “one of the most memorable seasons ever.”
Maybe it truly was a good experience for the player and coach, but nothing about it looked fun from the outside looking in. After Alabama lost in the round of 16 and Miller was unable to deliver in a big moment, all the grief the Crimson Tide received for not sitting their star freshman just doesn't seem worth it.