San Diego State is America’s team now.
The Aztecs did the entire country – well, 49 of the states, at least – a solid Friday night by eliminating top-seeded Alabama and its thick cloud of ick. Rather than cringing at the thought of Nate Oats getting rewarded for his shameless opportunism with a national title, we can enjoy the rest of the NCAA men’s tournament without feeling the need for a shower when it’s over.
“It’s been an unbelievable year,” Oats said after the 71-64 loss. “Everybody is really disappointed in the loss. It ended too soon.”
More like not soon enough.
If Oats and Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne had even the slightest shred of conscience or integrity, they’d have shut the program down two months ago, when at least three players were present during a shooting that left a young woman dead.
One of the players, Darius Miles, is now facing capital murder charges because police say it was his gun used in the shooting. Freshman phenom Brandon Miller drove the car where Miles’ gun had been stashed to the scene, and police say he and Jaden Bradley were still there when the shooting occurred.
Miles didn’t fire the fatal shot. Miller said he didn’t know the gun was in his car and was only going to pick Miles up, and he doesn’t face any charges. None of it changes the fact that a 23-year-old woman with a young child is dead, and that she’d still be alive had either Miles, Miller or both made different choices that night.
This was not, contrary to what Oats would have you believe, a matter of “wrong spot at the wrong time.” It was a moral failing at the very least, and anyone not blinded by team loyalties knows losing the privilege of playing basketball should have been the bare minimum as far as consequences.
Not at Alabama! Not when the Crimson Tide had a team built for a deep run in the NCAA tournament and Miller, the leading scorer, was central to their national title aspirations. Oats allowed Miller to continue to play, enabling and excusing him at every turn, the uncomfortability of the whole situation growing with every game.
“I think it was a pretty successful season,” Miller said when asked to sum up the year. “Made it to the Sweet 16. Probably one of the biggest tournaments I’ve ever played in in my life. I think we really just came to have fun really and just compete at a high level.”
Even for a 20-year-old, even for someone trying to stick to sports, the lack of introspection is jarring.
WINNERS, LOSERS:Down go the final No. 1 seeds, Bama and Houston
SCHEDULE, RESULTS:Complete 2023 NCAA men’s tournament schedule, results and times
This has arguably been the most compelling men’s tournament ever. A 16-seed won for only the second time and, in a first, there will be no No. 1s in the Elite Eight. There’s a chance San Diego State, Florida Atlantic or Miami could be the national champion.
Having Alabama hanging around the party in Houston would have cheapened it all.
We all know college athletics is a dirty business. For every feel-good story that’s told during the tournament, there are a dozen more ugly ones being whispered about behind the scenes.
But there is a purity to the tournament, the idea that anything is possible playing out before our eyes as a Fairleigh Dickinson topples a Purdue or a Princeton reaches the Sweet 16. So long as Alabama remained, that was tainted. For every plucky team that dared us to dream bigger and strive harder, Oats and Alabama were there to remind us how much easier it is to give in to temptation and trade integrity for expedience.
“I think we’re doing pretty good things at Alabama,” Oats said.
That depends on your definition of “good things.” If it’s wins and losses, sure. Alabama was the overall No. 1 seed after winning the SEC regular-season and tournament titles, and Miller was one of the country’s top players.
But if it’s running a program of character, Oats and Alabama fall well short.
“It’s a great group that really loves each other,” Oats said. “I mean, they’re going to be close for life, most of them.”
Good for them.
As for the rest of us, a hearty “thank you” to San Diego State will do.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.