TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Nate Oats never thought he’d ever get the chance to coach against Tom Izzo.
But on Thursday at the Moda Center in Portland, Oats will get his chance to shake the longtime Michigan State head coach’s hand prior to tip-off before preparing his team to play against the No. 12 Spartans, a program he’s known for years.
Since he was a high school coach at Romulus, Oats aspired to be just like Izzo, dreaming of one day to be standing on the sidelines barking out defensive calls and celebrating clutch baskets like his idol has done for years.
Prior to Alabama’s opening game against Michigan at the Phil Knight Invitational, Oats discussed how surreal Thursday’s game is going to be.
“To be honest with you, he’s a guy I’ve always looked up to,” Oats said. “I grew up in Wisconsin and moved to the Detroit area to take a high school job and honestly part of it was I was in the same state. He was always great to me when I worked camps before I took the Romulus job and when I took the job I was up there all the time.”
Oats became very familiar with the route from Romulus to Lansing as he’d take the Eagles on the hour-long trip along I-96 for camps and eventually state playoff games.
The two coaches stayed connected during Oats’ rapid rise throughout the coaching ranks. Prior to hiring the Watertown, Wisconsin native, Greg Byrne called Izzo during the hiring process before offering Oats the job.
“In a small way, he helped me get the job,” Oats said.
Now Oats will get his chance to thank in the best way a coach knows how — to try and beat him. It will be Alabama’s first test against another high-major school with Michigan State playing against three teams in the top 30 of the KenPom rankings as it faced Gonzaga, Kentucky and Villanova all within a week.
While Oats noted that the early experience may give the Spartans an advantage, he also said playing games like this so early in the season will help answer a lot of questions about his team.
“The good thing is, I don’t have to play Coach Izzo,” Oats said. “He’s got a lot more wins than I’ve got. I’ve got some pretty good players that I get to coach. My players get to play his players. We’ve both got pretty good players, so it should be a pretty good game. It will be a little different going down to shake his hand before this game.”