Tim Sullivan Sports: As Alabama enters Louisville for March Madness, a dark story looms

Although fate finds him currently leading the best team in college basketball, Nate Oats knows his place.

Training hoops at the University of Alabama means standing in the shade of a redwood tree. Football is king on the Tuscaloosa campus, where Nick Saban rules as if by divine right. So when the seven-time national champion said Monday, “There’s no wrong place at the wrong time,” completely contradicting Oats’ defense of his players’ presence in the fatal shooting of Jamea Jonae Harris, Oats was smart enough to avoid making things worse than he already had.

“He and I talked that night,” Oats said of Saban Thursday afternoon at the KFC Yum Center. “I didn’t take it that way [as criticism] at all. I have a lot of respect for Coach. . . He is perhaps the best team sports coach in modern sports history.

If Oats did not detect the rebuke implied in Saban’s statement, the hearing impaired did not need hearing aids. Although Saban’s worldview is notoriously narrow – he claimed he was unaware it was election day in 2016 – he could hardly have missed the fallout from his school’s reckless response to the death of a woman. 23-year-old for which former Alabama forward Darius Miles faces capital murder charges. Among the current Alabama players at the scene was its star, Brandon Miller, who delivered the gun.

It’s possible Saban was unaware that Oats had awkwardly downplayed Miller’s role in the tragedy with his “wrong place, wrong time” comment. It’s conceivable that Saban’s presence at Wednesday’s basketball practice in Alabama had nothing to do with damage control. But whether he did it deliberately or by coincidence, Saban set a tone that Oats and others would do well to adhere to.

“You have to be responsible for who you are, who you are and what you do; who you associate with [with] and the situations you put yourself in,” Saban said. “It is what it is, but there is a causal link when you make choices and decisions that put you in bad situations.”

Saban was speaking specifically to first-year defensive back Tony Mitchell, who was charged last week with possession of marijuana with intent to sell and/or deliver. But given his peculiar choice of words and the grim context of Harris’ death, it was easy to extrapolate.

“There’s nothing to clarify,” Saban told reporters at Alabama Pro Football Day on Thursday. “I don’t watch a basketball coach’s press conference. How many years have I been a coach? I have never looked at it. I never listen to what other people say. This was strictly about our program. It had nothing to do with anyone else; I don’t comment on anyone else. We hope the basketball team does really, really well.

The fact that no charges were filed against Miller is more easily interpreted as a sign of his value as a cooperating witness. The fact that the university refused to discipline Miller, not even a token mid-season suspension, lends support to suspicions of empathy and enhances Oats’ vacuum throughout the administration. Alabama.

“The ease with which Oats and Alabama have abandoned all principles because they see Miller as their ticket to a national championship is shameful,” Nancy Armor wrote for USA Today. “The way they treated Miller, as a means to an end rather than a young adult in need of guidance, is ruthless.”

Alabama arrived at the South Regional in Louisville with 31 wins in 36 games, anointed as the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. To reach the Final Four, the Crimson Tide must defeat fifth-seeded San Diego State on Friday night and then defeat regional semifinal winner Creighton-Princeton on Sunday.

“We have never lost sight of the fact that we have a heartbreaking situation around our program,” Oats said Thursday. “The fact that we have such a good group of guys allows them to keep it, as it should be, [as] serious business, and it has been, but, you know, you’ve been playing basketball since you were young to get to those times, and we’re going to enjoy those times. They have earned the right to enjoy the moment they are in, and I think our guys are having a lot of fun.

Undoubtedly, it was embarrassing. Alabama has its best basketball team in some of the worst circumstances imaginable. The Crimson Tide are in the right place, it seems, at the wrong time.

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