Just minutes after his team's Sweet 16 face-plant against San Diego State on Friday night, Alabama head coach Nate Oates took a seat in front of the microphone and answered eight minutes of basketball-related questions.
Most relevant was Left Unsaid: Was it all worth it?
Was it fair to refuse to bench Brandon Miller despite his involvement in a fatal shooting in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 15? Was it worth it to tarnish Oates' reputation and Alabama's reputation to play the star freshman? Was it fair to be buried under a months-long avalanche of negative publicity for winning just two games in the men's NCAA tournament?
Good luck stopping well shy of a Friday night the first Monday night in April after Alabama's season crash. San Diego State's surprising 71-64 upset in the Sweet 16 in Louisville was a reminder that there are no certainties in single-elimination tournaments, not even for the 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 their first two NCAA tournament games by 21 and 22, the Crimson Tide faced a far more determined opponent. The fifth-seeded Aztecs played an almost perfect defensive game, slowing down the pace, pressuring the ball, clogging driving lanes and going hard on shooters.
Alabama scored only five points in an eight-minute second-half during the season, turning a nine-point lead into a challenging nine-point deficit on a hard-fought run. Miller struggled to create any clean looks for himself against the Aztecs' switching defense, scoring only nine points on 3-for-19 shooting from the field.
San Diego State's win did more than move the Aztecs within win of their first Final Four. It saved the rest of the joyous, trouble-filled NCAA tournament from the Miller scandal.
Any other year, Oates, who turned from a football powerhouse to a basketball title contender, could be one of the tournament's fascinating stories. This year, Alabama's all-out effort to make its first Final Four has been perceived as an act of defiance.
The change began last month after news spread from 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 Jamia Harris. By then, former Alabama basketball player Darius Miles was already facing murder charges, as was his friend Michael Davis, who had no ties to the basketball program.
A Tuscaloosa police officer testified that Miller delivered the weapon used to kill Harris in the early morning hours of January 15. According to police testimony, Miles had texted Miller, stating he had been involved in an altercation and asking him to bring over a gun left in the back seat of Miller's car.
The Tuscaloosa District Attorney's Office has not charged Miller with a crime and police apparently treated him as a cooperating witness. Miller's attorney said last month that Miller “never touched a gun,” and “never knew there would be illegal activity involving a gun,” though the attorney stopped short of specifically claiming that Miller had touched Miles. Didn't see the 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 has started every game since the fatal shooting, “Shut him down!” Worse comments during road games and on social media.
When Miller arrived at Legacy Arena in Birmingham on the eve of his NCAA tournament start, he was accompanied by an armed security guard wearing a Crimson Tide basketball polo shirt. Oates explained that the presence of the security guard was a result of anonymous threats Miller had received.
The Alabama head coach said, “If you guys saw some of what I've seen, I think you'll understand.”
The deeper Alabama advanced into the NCAA tournament, the further media attention deviated 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 comments by alabama football coach Nick Saban that some perceived as casting shade on Oates.
Perhaps the most intriguing response from Oates came when he was asked if his team was able to enjoy participating in the NCAA tournament.
“Yeah, we're having fun,” Oates said about a root canal with all the enthusiasm of a dental patient.
“We're winning the game. We know who we are. We have a great group of people who support each other, who have become close,” he said. Play basketball since you were young to have these moments, and we're going to enjoy these moments.
At the time, the Crimson Tide seemed to have a golden path to the national title game. They could advance through the South Region without facing an opponent seeded higher than No. 5 and then head to Houston and await either Kansas State or Florida Atlantic in the Final Four.
On Friday night, everyone 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 on the wrong end of a major upset since 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 “quite successful”.
When asked the same question, Oates called it “one of the most memorable seasons ever”.
Maybe it was a really cool experience for the player and the coach, but nothing about it seemed fun from the outside. 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.