Not having yet completed his fourth season as Alabama coach, Nate Oats has already coached his teams to victories at every SEC arena except two: Texas A&M’s Reed Arena and Missouri’s Mizzou Arena.
Alabama will make its first trip under Oats to College Station later this season — its scheduled game two seasons ago was canceled because of weather — but Saturday will mark the fourth time the Tide has played at Missouri since Oats became coach in 2019. It has lost all three previous games.
“We’ve talked to our guys about playing at Missouri,” Oats said. “We’re just going to have to change the narrative about Missouri, to be honest with you.”
One of Alabama’s two SEC losses in 2020-21 came in Columbia, where Oats recalled Friday his SEC championship team was “flat.” And last season, problems finding a match-up for center Charles Bediako prompted Oats to use a zone defense, which he admitted, “didn’t work very well for us.”
But Alabama’s roster has turned over considerably last season and Missouri’s coaching change from Cuonzo Martin to Cleveland State’s Dennis Gates means little can be carried over from Alabama’s two meetings last season with the Tigers, which included a late January win for the Tide in Tuscaloosa.
One constant: Kobe Brown. The 6-foot-8, 250-pound forward from Huntsville’s Lee High School is now a senior for Missouri and will play his sixth career game against Alabama. Brown scored 30 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in Alabama’s 92-86 loss at Missouri last January.
“It seems like he’s always up for our game,” Oats said. “He’s a mis-match problem. You put your five on him — he’s shooting 41 percent from three on the year. You put smaller guys on him, he kind of bullies him. He’s an issue. … They’ve upgraded their talent significant through the transfer portal, but I think he’s their best player.
“I wasn’t here when he was coming out of high school, so I’m not taking responsibility for not recruiting him. Maybe you can put that out there so he doesn’t try to take it out on me. I would’ve loved to have had him on this team.”
The 5 pm CT tip off in Mizzou Arena will pit Alabama’s defense, ranked No. 7 in adjusted efficiency by KenPom, against Missouri’s offense that is ranked No. 7.
“At one point this year, they were No. 1 in the country in KenPom offensive efficiency,” Oats said. “They’re a really good offensive team. Coach Gates has done a good job modernizing their offense. They play faster. At least with tempo and things like that, they play similar to the way we play. A lot of five-out stuff, a lot of threes.”
Missouri had December wins over then-ranked Illinois and Kentucky that propelled the Tigers into the Associated Press poll at No. 20 in back-to-back weeks earlier this month. But it enters having lost two of its past three games, to Florida and Texas A&M, with a chance to make noise against No. 4-ranked Alabama.
“Now teams are gonna celebrate really hard if they beat us,” Oats said, noting Alabama’s celebration after beating a pair of No. 1-ranked teams in Houston and North Carolina this season. “It’s changed a little bit from the beginning of the year.
“I don’t think it changes a whole lot of what we do. Just know that we’re going to get everybody’s best performance, and we can’t afford to not be ready to play. Because everybody we play from here on out is going to be ready to play against us. I’m sure we’ll have a lot of sellouts. The places we go, fans are going to want to see their team play against a top-five team. They’re going to be amped up, trying to upset a top-five team.”
Alabama sits atop the SEC with a 6-0 record, and 16-2 record overall, but Oats is far from comfortable about his team’s position.
“I told our guys this morning: if we split the conference play up into thirds, we’re a third of the way through,” he said. “We’ve got twice as many games left as what we’ve played. A&M is 5-0. Tennessee and Auburn is 5-1. It’s not like we’ve separated ourselves from the pack a whole lot. Like, we’ve got people right on our tails. One team a half-game behind, two others just a game behind. We’re one bad game away from not being in first place anymore. We’ve got to stay motivated, stay diligent to the task at hand.”
Oats on Friday also provided an update to guard Nimari Burnett, who has been out since wrist surgery in mid-December.
“He’s returned to practice in a limited role,” Oats said. “He’s been able to shoot on the side. He’s gotten the cast and brace off. He had a heavy tape job, but shoot, we’re gonna see how he responds.
“It might be next week, at the end of next week — it will be five-and-a-half [weeks since the surgery], pushing six. Listen, he’s been in practice the past two days and he hasn’t been cleared to do everything in practice but enough. … He’s close. He’s getting real close here in the next few games.”
Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.