Alabama coach Nate Oats notched his eighth win over an Associated Press top 15-ranked team Thursday night when the Tide blew past No. 12 Michigan State in the second half, 81-70.
It was the first time Oats had faced the Spartans’ Tom Izzo, whose basketball camps Oats worked as a high school coach in Michigan beginning in the early 2000s.
No. 18 Alabama (5-0) will next play Friday night against another ranked opponent in UConn, No. 20 in the latest Associated Press poll, and a coach that Oats knows well but has never coached against in Danny Hurley.
The fifth-year Huskies coach and his brother, Bobby, gave Oats his first college coaching job — a relationship that began more than a decade ago when Oats made cold calls from Romulus High School outside Detroit.
Danny Hurley, a successful high school coach in New Jersey, had taken a job at Wagner College in New York City and added his brother Bobby, a former Duke and NBA point guard, to his staff. Oats tried to visit college and professional programs to observe practices and network, and when he called Wagner to inquire, the tiny Northeast Conference program had nobody on staff to answer the phones.
“Bobby Hurley answers the phone,” Oats recalled in a 2021 interview with Barstool Sports. “I had Bobby Hurley’s cell phone number through that whole deal. We kind of knew each other a little bit.”
Rhode Island hired Danny Hurley as head coach in 2012 and Bobby Hurley followed as associate head coach. The previous URI staff had been recruiting one of Oats’ high school players, E.C. Matthews, which continued after the staff change. Matthews later committed to Rhode Island, scoring a top-100 recruiting win for Danny Hurley.
“Me and Danny all the sudden build a really good relationship,” Oats said of Matthews’ recruitment. “He’s a high school guy, two years removed. I’m a high school guy. We hit it off.”
When Bobby Hurley left the next year to become Buffalo’s coach in 2013, Oats did not want to expressly angle for his vacancy at Rhode Island. Instead, Oats sent Danny Hurley a text message congratulating him for having one of his assistants earn a job elsewhere while confirming Matthews’ commitment was firm.
“The body is still warm and people are texting him about [Bobby’s] job already,” Oats said of Danny Hurley. “He said, these idiots that are texting me about getting a job, they’re out. I’m done with them. They have no feeling.”
Danny Hurley appreciated Oats’ tact and, while he could not offer him a spot on his Rhode Island staff, asked his brother to consider Oats for an assistant job at Buffalo. The two interviewed at the 2013 Final Four and Oats was hired, in part from what Bobby Hurley witnessed at Romulus High School when helping Danny recruit Matthews.
“I just thought he ran a program like a college program would be run,” Bobby Hurley said in 2015. “They had disciplined, structured practices. He got his kids to play extremely hard.”
Oats spent two seasons on staff at Buffalo until Bobby Hurley was hired by Arizona State in 2015. That led to Oats’ promotion at Buffalo and propelled his career to Alabama the past four seasons.
Oats faced Bobby Hurley’s Sun Devils in the 2019 NCAA tournament and won, 91-74. Now Oats will meet Danny Hurley on the court for the first time in what will be the second-ever meeting between Alabama and UConn. The first came in the Elite Eight of the 2004 NCAA tournament when the Huskies ended the Tide’s historic run on their way to a national championship.
The 8:30 p.m. CT tip off in Portland, Oregon will decide who plays in the championship game Sunday of the Phil Knight Invitational. Alabama is ranked No. 11 in KenPom, while UConn (6-0) is No. 12.
“They’re good. They’re talented. They’re tough,” Oats said of UConn during his Crimson Tide Sports Network postgame radio interview. “They’re gonna play super hard. Shoot, we [will have] played two of the toughest programs in the country on back-to-back nights.”
The Huskies defeated Oregon, 83-59, on Thursday. UConn shot 17-of-37 on three pointers, a program record for makes and not far off from Alabama’s 21-of-46 in a win over Jacksonville State last week.
“I like 30 [attempts], for me,” Hurley quipped after Thursday’s win. “I’m not Nate Oats.”
If Alabama wins Friday night, it will play the winner of top-ranked North Carolina and Iowa State at 9 p.m. CT Sunday. If Alabama loses to UConn, the Tide will meet the loser of North Carolina-Iowa State in the third place game at 2:30 p.m. CT Sunday.
Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.