Without ‘prima donnas,’ Alabama basketball shows ‘grit’ in 6-1 start.

This season’s Alabama basketball team has something in common with last season’s: winning big games.

Tested by a Phil Knight Invitational tournament in which the Tide drew three top-25 teams in Michigan State at No. 12, UConn at No. 20 and North Carolina at No. 1, Alabama beat the Spartans and Tar Heels. They were coach Nate Oats’ eighth and ninth wins over the Associated Press top-15 opponents since he was hired in 2019, and followed similar wins last season over Gonzaga, Houston and Baylor.

But if things go well for the current version of the Tide, the comparisons to last season will end there.

Alabama struggled with players worrying about individual goals last season, Oats said in the spring after his team lost its first few games in both the SEC and NCAA tournaments. The fourth-year coach said two weeks ago players are “learning to check their egos at the door,” and some of that team-first mentality showed in Sunday’s four-overtime win over North Carolina.

The focus of discussion is forward Brandon Miller, a five-star freshman and McDonald’s High School All-American, who shot 4 of 21 and sat much of Sunday’s second half after four early fouls. But Miller, who was the engine behind Alabama’s first five wins and led the team in goals, impressed one of his veteran teammates with the way he handled his nightmarish game.

“Brandon struggled a bit today and he was still on defense,” said guard Jahvon Quinerly. “You don’t see that very often with a stallion like him. A guy who – what did he shoot, 4-for-21 – usually guys stop playing defense when they’re not shooting. He really got into the defensive end. It just goes to show that our younger guys are really ready to fight.”

During an interview Monday morning with WJOXOats called it Miller’s worst game of the season.

“Obviously he was struggling,” Oats said during his post-game press conference. “I thought he made some big plays on the stretch, some hard rebounds. He hasn’t resigned. He was frustrated but didn’t give up. He continued to play hard in defence. We needed him to do some of the pieces that he did, so I thought it was good.”

The do-it-all 6-foot-8 Nashville-area star, who led the nation’s freshmen in points per game on Sunday, was the No. 14-rated player in his recruiting class. However, Oats doesn’t think every prospect at this elite level is wired the same way.

“We had a really good recruiting class, but I don’t feel like we have the prima donnas, if you will,” Oats told WJOX. “Some of the top-notch recruitment courses give the kids a sense that they’ve been told for so long how great they are and that they don’t want to do the difficult things. I don’t feel like we have that at all. I feel like we have some kids who are tough and brave.”

The “character” and “struggle” Oats has seen from his team fuels optimism that it won’t fare as poorly as last season’s group after zigzagging as the No. 6 in the NCAA tournament and then was upset by Notre Dame in the first round.

“I feel like we have some toughness, some guts,” Oats told WJOX. “I think our potential is high. I think we have the character to keep growing and to achieve it. Sometimes teams fall short of their potential. I think this team can get a lot closer than what maybe some other teams have.

Friday night’s loss to UConn was a reminder that Alabama needs to keep its foot on the gas. The Tide was pushed around early on by the Huskies, who took a 15-point lead in the first half. And after Alabama leveled the game in the second half, UConn again flashed against the tide in the final eight minutes for a 15-point win.

“I also feel like we have a lot of room to grow,” Oats said.

Miller and teammate Noah Clowney led Alabama in most of its first six games before Miller’s rough start on Sunday and Clowney’s injury in the early game against the Tar Heels. Clowney suffered a contusion to his lower body in a hard fall three minutes into the competition and did not return. Another five-star freshman, guard Jaden Bradley, has been a positive contributor for Alabama this season but threw away two inbound passes at key moments in the four-overtime win.

Oats brought two other names into play Monday, freshman guard Rylan Griffen and third-year guard Nimari Burnett, who had just nine points and three rebounds combined in his last two starts against UConn and North Carolina.

“I feel like we can get a lot more out of guys like Rylan Griffen. I think Nimari Burnett will continue to grow,” Oats told WJOX. “He hasn’t played in almost two years so he’s just starting to recover. You can almost call him a freshman considering how little he played in college.

“We still feel like we have a lot up and still a lot of room to grow. We feel like we could be a much better team than what we’ve shown [Sunday].”

Alabama (6-1) has a chance against South Dakota State on Saturday to show they can avoid the big-win losses that plagued the team last season. A week later, they will travel to play the current No. 1 in Houston before hosting Memphis on December 13 and meeting Gonzaga in Birmingham on December 17.

“[Houston is] one of the toughest teams in the country,” Oats told WJOX. “Memphis is super talented. Gonzaga is obviously one of the best teams in the country, in and out of the #1 rating. They obviously want to come back and get even for the fact that we beat them in Seattle last year.

“We still have room for improvement”

Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @micerodak.