Alabama has asserted itself as one of the best teams in the nation this season, as evidenced by its No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s East Region entering Sunday’s Sweet 16 game matchup against UCLA.
Yet hours after Alabama extended its stay in the tournament by vanquishing the feel-good season of No. 15 seed Iona, Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats reached out to Gaels coach Rick Pitino for advice.
Oats, who always has idolized Pitino, asked him for a scouting report on him and his Crimson Tide team.
Pitino, the legendary coach who just completed his first season at Iona, obliged.
“I wanted to get his thoughts on us,’’ Oats said. “He said every Louisville/Kentucky team he had, the hardest game was the first one. He referenced the San Jose State game [with Kentucky in the 1996 NCAAs], when they were a 36-point favorite and it was a one-point game at the half and he just told his guys they’ve got enough talent [and] to calm, just focus on defense.’’
Oats said Pitino also told him that his team would play better in its second game.
Alabama did just that.
After struggling early against Iona — trailing at one point in the second half — before pulling away to win 68-55, Alabama blew out Maryland, 96-77, in its second-round game to advance to the Sweet 16.
That 1996 Kentucky team Pitino referenced went on to beat San Jose State, 110-72 and won its next three games by at least 20 points to reach the Final Four.
“[Pitino is] a Hall of Fame coach, won a couple of national championships,’’ Oats said. “I think he knows what he’s doing.”
Oats revealed this week in a radio interview with WJOX-FM that, during that conversation with Pitino, the Iona coach invited him to come as his guest to Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck.
Oats said he had no idea what Pitino was talking about.
“He talked to me about where he’s living up there … what’s that ‘Winwood?’ ’’ Oats said. “What’s the big-time golf course up there?”
When one of the show’s hosts asked if Oats meant “Winged Foot,’’ Oats said, “Winged Foot, sorry yeah, I’m not a big golfer. Apparently, those that are really into golf, that’s a big-time spot. He lives up there on Winged Foot. He was telling me I’ll have to come by. So maybe, I’ll take him up on it and get up there once.”
Oats said he actually got Pitino’s phone number from Pitino’s son, Richard, whom Oats has known for a few years.
It remains to be seen how relaxed Alabama (26-6) will be against No. 11 seed UCLA (20-9). Surely, Oats is hoping his Tide are able to roll the way that 1996 Kentucky team Pitino coached did.
UCLA is on a magical ride, having emerged from the First Four to the Sweet 16 — only the fifth team ever to accomplish that — with wins over Michigan State (86-80 in overtime), BYU (73-62) and Abilene Christian (67-47).
UCLA presents a different challenge for Alabama because its strength — perimeter defense against the 3-point shot — is something that wasn’t Iona’s or Maryland’s forte.
The Bruins, who haven’t reached a Final Four in more than a decade, also have some dangerous shooters, including sophomore guard Johnny Juzang, a 6-foot-6 transfer from Kentucky who has scored 67 points in three NCAA Tournament games.
Something to watch in this game: Alabama leads the nation in rebounding and UCLA is ranked 173rd.
“Their shooting is a concern, but I think we’ll do a good job with that,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin told a Los Angeles television station Wednesday. “We’ve got some guys who can shoot too, that will give Alabama some problems, but their rebounding is probably going to be my biggest concern, limiting their shot attempts.”