In most other weeks of pretty much every other year, Nate Oats’ superstar freshman Brandon Miller would have been a shoo-in for one of the SEC’s two player of the week awards given out on Monday.
The Alabama basketball standout scored 41 points and 26 points to lead the Crimson Tide to wins over both South Carolina and Arkansas last week and keep the Crimson Tide firmly in the hunt for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And yet, despite those masterful performances, the marketing machines of both the Alabama Crimson Tide and SEC appear to want to distance themselves from Brandon Miller in the wake of last Tuesday’s revelations regarding his role delivering a gun to a former teammate and charged assailant at a capital murder scene.
Consider that Alabama’s social media department didn’t even post a pic of Miller last Wednesday despite him hitting the game-winner vs South Carolina and tallying a season-high.
Then, on Monday, the SEC also decided to ignore Miller altogether and give weekly SEC Freshman of the Week honors to Arkansas star Nick Smith Jr. instead. Smith averaged 25 points and 3.5 rebounds last week in a win against Georgia and the road loss to No. 2 Alabama. It’s the second time this season that Smith has been named SEC Freshman of the Week, while Miller had previously gotten that honor six times.
Brandon Miller, who averaged 32.5 points and 7 rebounds per game last week, also could have won the SEC Player of the Week award but that went to Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe. The reigning national player of the year averaged 23.5 points per game and shot 87% from the field in wins at Florida and over Auburn.
Decision Will Cost Nate Oats
The selections of Smith and Tshiebwe further confirm what has become increasingly clear in the last few days: the decision by Alabama’s leadership to let Miller continue to play despite his role in alleged gun delivery and vehicle blocking of the Jan. 15 murder of Jamea Jonae Harris is a PR nightmare for the Alabama basketball program.
Of course, the real nightmare in this situation involves the current and coming heartache from a litany of relatives to Harris including her 5-year-old son, but when zeroing in on Nate Oats specifically, the SEC office distancing themselves from Miller makes it clear the optics of this situation are going from bad to worse.
Usually, winning helps recruiting and the overall image of a college sports program but this may be the first time in which the opposite is happening. That is, the more Alabama wins with Miller leading the way, the more the perception grows in the public eye that Alabama’s athletic department prioritizes victories over everything else, including a case of what many college basketball fans feel is one of right and wrong (regardless of whether Miller, who currently isn’t charged with a crime, is ever charged or not).
Last week, Oats made a callous statement about Miller being “at the wrong place at wrong time” for which he was publicly raked over the coals. He quickly issued an apology, but Jamea Harris’ stepfather, Delvin Heard, isn’t buying it. “The retraction meant nothing to us because over this five-week period, he has made a habit of making reckless statements,” Heard told USA Today and Tuscaloosa News. “When I say ‘reckless,’ I mean statements not considering the victim in this whole thing, which is Jamea Harris.’’
Then there was the whole pregame pat-down ritual fiasco before the Arkansas game that made Oats look all the more clueless when he later said Miller had ended his player introduction going on the court before many previous games by getting faux-frisked for weapons, but never paid attention to it and didn’t think anything was wrong with it until after Arkansas.
“Alabama basketball is the biggest villain in college sports today because of the decision to play Miller,” writes Joseph Goodman of AL.com, Alabama’s largest newspaper. “If suspending Miller would have been an admission of guilt by Alabama, then making him stop his pregame pat downs is evidence of a guilty conscience.”
Perhaps the most devastating contributors to Oats’ takedown in the public eye have been reporters and columnists based in Alabama itself. The reporters are getting insight from Harris’ relatives that is gut-wrenching and heart-breaking, especially for parents to read – it’s the kind of stuff that will almost surely cost Oats recruits in the future.
Delvin Heard, for instance, delivered a haymaker when he told Goodman this: “This season is stained in Jamea’s blood,” he said. “After what this coach said, for us as a family, this season is stained in the blood of Jamea Harris and it’s not ever washing out. Coach Oats crossed the line [last Tuesday]. He said they prayed at practice. They weren’t praying for Jamea. They were praying for their own players.”
It’s one thing for criticisms to come from national writers, or the writers of other SEC team sites like this one, but it says a lot when the local media unleashes this kind of reporting to the detriment of a specific coach’s reputation.
Repercussions of Brandon Miller Outcry
Here in Arkansas, it wasn’t clear that Bret Bielema was essentially toast as the Razorbacks’ head football coach until about midway through the 2017 season when Arkansas media started piling on. In Alabama, a similar dynamic is playing out, only to a much larger degree because the seriousness of the Brandon Miller situation is so much greater than the on-field struggles that are typically behind a coach’s ouster.
“For Alabama basketball, for the entire university, every win continues to make the school look worse,” the columnist Joseph Goodman continues. “Fans cheering wildly during player introductions that included a pat down of Miller? All of this could have been avoided. The cognitive dissonance is incalculable.”
We’ll see this cognitive dissonance drawn out for a while longer. It’s very possible that Alabama will continue one of its best seasons ever based on the way Miller played in the eye of the storm these last two games. It would not be surprising to see the Crimson Tide make the Final Four and even cut down the nets come April.
That kind of success, combined with another loaded team next season, would usually be enough to secure a head coach’s job. But, given the unique dynamic here, Nate Oats appears to be securing only his eventual ouster as he stays steadfast to play Miller no matter the public outcry.
Indeed, the die looks cast to onlookers across the nation.
“Make so mistake, in my mind this is the beginning of the end for Nate Oats at Alabama,” says Tommy Craft of ESPN Arkansas. It may take a year or two, but Craft thinks Oats’ eventual dismissal will be traced back to these moments “because trust has been broken at some level between him and the administration – probably between him and the fanbase and in recruiting circles.”
More on Nate Oats, as well as an analogy with Nolan Richardson and Todd Day below: