Matchup with Michigan State, Tom Izzo a ‘surreal’ moment for Nate Oats


The Alabama men’s basketball team meets 12th-ranked Michigan State Nate Hafer in the first round of the Phil Knight Invitational on Thursday, November 24.

Oats, now in his fourth season at Tuscaloosa, Alabama, worked as an assistant coach at Wisconsin-Whitewater at Michigan State camps. He landed a head coaching job at Romulus (Mich.) High School in 2002 and spent the next decade attending the East Lansing and Tom Izzo basketball facilities. More than 20 years later he will face the Spartans in Portland.

“He’s a guy I’ve always looked up to,” Oats said Tuesday night. “I grew up in Wisconsin. I moved to the Detroit area to get a high school job. And honestly, part of it was that I was in the same state right there. He was always great to me when I was working in camps before taking the Romulus job. When I took the Romulus job, I was up there all the time. I would take the team to team camp. We went up and watched his exercises. I always looked up to him.

“He’s always been great to me as a high school coach.”

Izzo, who took over Michigan State’s men’s basketball program at the same time Nick Saban was hired as the Spartans’ football coach, was essentially a reference for Oats before he got the job in Alabama. Now the two trainers will face off in one of the best multi-team events.

“I think Greg (Byrne) called Izzo before he hired me to ask him about me,” Oats said. “He helped me a bit to get the job. It’s not like I had a real mentor that I worked for a long time. Coach (Bobby) Hurley got me into it, and he’s the only guy I’ve ever worked under in Division I. But I’ve spent 11 years in Michigan and I’ve been promoted to Michigan State many, many times. They were always helpful.”

Michigan State goes into the game with a 3-1 record after beating northern Arizona, Kentucky and Villanova. The Spartans’ only loss was a 1-point loss to Gonzaga. But Izzo said this week that the Crimson Tide presents a completely different challenge than the previous three games. He pointed to UA’s 46 three-point attempts against Jacksonville State, 21 of which were brands, and called Oats’ team dangerous and very long, especially up front.

“I mean, it’s 6-11, 6-10, 6-10,” Izzo said. “The Miller kid is everyone’s two or three pick in the draft. Long, athletic, can shoot threes. Some people compare him to a Kevin Durant. So it’s a talented team. Miller averages a double-double with 18 and 10.

“The Sears boy they got from Ohio U played very well. But the Quinerly boy, who came on from Villanova, had been injured and he could be the perfect point guard. They also have two other newcomers in Griffen and Bradley who are very, very good shooters. So they shoot a lot of threes. They are long and athletic. They play very well defensively.

“Nate has been with our camp for 10 years so he knows a lot about our program and I have followed his. So I think it’s going to be the fourth different prep if you see a Gonzaga, then a Kentucky, then Villanova. This team is far different than all these teams and yet it will give us another good indication of where we are and what we need to improve on. I look forward to it.”

Alabama (4-0) didn’t face a Power 5 team in Feast Week, so the fight against Michigan State — and subsequent games in the PKI — will be the first test for a young Crimson Tide roster of seven freshmen, three of which were in the starting eleven in the first four games. But Oats likes his squad and is curious to see how he handles the Spartans.

But it will also serve as a reminder of how far he’s come since his Michigan days.

“It’s a bit surreal,” Oats said. “I mean, the good thing is I don’t have to play Coach Izzo. He has a lot more wins than me. I have some pretty good players to coach. My players are playing against his players and we both have pretty good players so it should be a pretty good game. But going down and shaking his hand before this game will be a little bit different.”

The game between Alabama and Michigan State will begin Thursday at 9:30 p.m. CT and will air on ESPN.

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Contact Charlie Potter via personal message or on Twitter (@Charlie_Potter).



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