NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After rolling with the same five starters for 22 straight games during a stretch of basketball that saw his team ascend to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll for the first time in 20 years, Alabama coach Nate Oats made a change just in time for March Madness. Before the Crimson Tide played Mississippi State on Friday in their first game of the SEC Tournament, he tweaked his starting lineup for the first time in nearly three months, inserting guard Jahvon Quinerly in place of Jaden Bradley.
"It wasn't necessarily a demotion of Jaden, because Jaden came to me last night and said he thought I should start Jahvon," Oats said after the Crimson Tide dismantled the Bulldogs with little drama. "That's the kind of group we have. Guys are willing to do whatever they need to do to help the team be better."
The story is one example of the conflicting images surrounding an Alabama basketball team that is the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament after finding a groove during three double-digit victories over quality opponents at the SEC Tournament.
On one hand, there is the program marred by the scandal of capital murder charges against now-former player Darius Miles stemming from the January killing of a woman near the university's campus. Court testimony in February tied star freshman forward Brandon Miller and Bradley to the scene, though they were not charged with any crime and are not considered suspects.
Revelations about Miller's alleged role in driving the murder weapon to the scene -- and lack of punishment from the school for doing so -- have made Alabama the scorn of college basketball and created a massive off-court distraction for the SEC's regular season and tournament champions.
On the other hand, there is a team that Oats has lauded for its unselfishness, chemistry and camaraderie, the team that Miller referred to as "a family away from home." It's the version of Alabama that it prefers to project, one embodied by the willingness of Bradley and others to embrace what's required for team success, even at personal cost.
When things changed
Miles played in 53 games for Oats over two and a half seasons with the program, but his on-court role was almost non-existent in the first half of the season before he was promptly dismissed from the team following the shooting. Alabama barely missed a beat without him, winning its next seven SEC games after Miles' arrest by an average of 19.9 points with an aberrational 24-point loss at Oklahoma mixed in during the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
Weeks passed, and the shooting story's role in the national narrative around Alabama basketball faded into the background as the Crimson Tide reached No. 1 on Feb. 13. The next week, things changed. Once Miller -- the SEC's Freshman of the Year and a likely lottery pick in the 2023 NBA Draft -- became ensnared in the controversy, Alabama's eliteness faltered to close the regular season.
Peppered with criticism for its handling of the issue, the Crimson Tide needed overtime to beat lowly South Carolina on the road. They also barely squeaked past Arkansas and Auburn at home after beating both by wider margins on the road before information on Miller's presence at the scene of the shooting became public.
Then came a 67-61 loss at Texas A&M to close the regular season in which the Crimson Tide played one of their worst offensive games of the season. The weight of the scandal appeared to be taking its toll on the court as Oats and Miller struggled in the public eye.
Oats referred to Miller's involvement in the shooting as "wrong place, wrong time" and then had to clarify his remarks, while Miller continued with a tone-deaf pregame pat-down ritual until Oats addressed it with the team.
But Alabama's performance at the SEC Tournament, highlighted by an 82-63 win over the Aggies in the title game, suggested it is finding a rhythm again on the court and settling into a groove with how to handle the lingering cloud surrounding the program's handling of an off-court disaster.
After Miller scored 18 points in Alabama's quarterfinal win over Mississippi State, the Crimson Tide brought him to the venue's main interview podium even after news broke during the game that Miles had been indicted by a grand jury. The second question he faced centered around his own lack of a suspension following the shooting.
"Respectfully, I'm not going to be able to say on that," Miller said.
The next question he and teammate Jahvon Quinerly fielded was about how the team is cutting back on turnovers. It was a sequence that symbolized the bizarre reality for an elite college basketball team soldiering on amid one of the most sordid scandals of program history.
Complicating matters, in the weeks between the shooting and the revelations about Miller's involvement, Oats received a contract extension making him one of the sport's 10 highest-paid coaches, further signaling institutional support for Oats' leadership amid the crisis.
"As we got the facts from [law enforcement], this was a decision made, based on all the facts we had, with, obviously, my boss, (Alabama athletic director) Greg Byrne; his boss, (Alabama president Stuart) Bell; and the Board of Trustees," Oats said this week of the decision not to issue suspensions. "And everybody was comfortable, and, I mean, based on the information we had, Brandon didn't break any school policy or team policy, so... I was comfortable with the decision that was made."
Whether SEC officials feel the same way is unclear. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey addressed the issue this week, acknowledging that he spoke with Byrne the day of the shooting.
"I don't share those conversations," Sankey said. "We have an incredible level of sympathy for the loss of life. That's a tragedy."
Alabama's dominant run through the SEC Tournament may have illustrated why Alabama -- a school that has never reached the Final Four -- has steadfastly backed Oats and Miller. In the semifinals, Missouri used a 19-5 run over the end of the first half and beginning of the second to build a 35-31 lead before Miller and fellow freshman Noah Clowney took over the game.
The duo combined for Alabama's next 14 points, immediately flipping the contest back into the Crimson Tide's favor and helping them build a comfortable lead that they sustained for the rest of the game.
Also key to the second half run in the semifinal victory was the play of senior forward Noah Gurley, who scored five points and grabbed four rebounds after playing just six minutes in the first half without attempting a shot.
After being named a three-time All-SoCon honoree in three seasons at Furman, Gurley transferred to Alabama for the 2021-22 season and started 14 games while playing in all 33 and averaging 18 minutes per contest. This season, with the nation's No. 4 ranked recruiting class on campus, his role has decreased, and his production across all categories is down as well.
Over Alabama's last nine games entering the SEC Tournament, Gurley did not play in three of them. In the six games he did play, he averaged just 6.7 minutes and scored a total of three points. But in the quarterfinals against Mississippi State, he logged 21 minutes and scored 11 points, setting the stage for another day of substantive contributions against Missouri in the semifinals.
"It's bigger than hoops," Gurley told the Crimson Tide Sports Network. "This team is a family. We've been through so much. Minutes are small compared to what we've been through. It hasn't been anything negative about me not playing. It's just my brothers have been hooping."
Criticism of how Alabama handled Miller and the aftermath of the shooting which killed Jamea Harris, a 23-year-old mother, aren't going away, especially as the Crimson Tide prepare to head to the sport's biggest stage in the NCAA Tournament.
Neither is Alabama. The Crimson Tide regained their on-court form in the SEC Tournament with a roster that continues to provide Oats with alternative, Alabama-friendly talking points to push back against the tidal wave of critics brought by the program's handling of an off-court crisis.
"I think he embodies our team, to be honest with you," Oats said of how Gurley has embraced his fluctuating role. "Unbelievable culture of guys just caring about their teammates."