Alabama's Aaron Estrada finishes 5-year, 4-school odyssey with Final Four trip, NIL money

Updated Apr. 5, 2024 6:00 a.m. ET

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Aaron Estrada said he walked onto the basketball floor at State Farm Stadium in awe on Thursday morning, staring up at more than 60,000 seats that should be packed when the Alabama guard plays in the Final Four on Saturday night.

The experience — which he called “life-changing” — turned him into Captain Obvious for a few seconds.

“I advise everyone who plays college basketball,” Estrada said. “Try to get to this point.”

It's a moment that was hard to fathom just five years ago, when the lightly-regarded recruit from New Jersey ended up at Saint Peter's before a basketball odyssey that led him to Oregon, Hofstra and finally Alabama. Now, he's living a dream in the Final Four with the Crimson Tide .


Thanks to the NCAA's relatively new NIL rules, he has a little extra money in his pocket as well.

Alabama will face defending NCAA champion UConn on Saturday in the national semifinals.

“It’s been a mental battle really, just trying to find myself,” Estrada said of his career. “Trying to find where I best fit, where I thrive. For me, personally, I learned something new in each phase of my career.”

He started close to home at Saint Peter's, averaging 8.1 points per game, before transferring to Oregon. But Estrada could never quite crack the Ducks' playing rotation, and after the season, he transferred back across the country to Hofstra.

Estrada blossomed with the Pride, winning back-to-back player of the year awards in the Colonial Athletic Association. With one more year of college eligibility remaining, Hofstra coach Speedy Claxton pulled Estrada into his office with some advice — let's get you to a bigger program where you can get paid under the NCAA's new rules.

They started researching schools. Alabama's tape jumped off the screen as a good fit.

The NIL advantages that a Southeastern Conference school could offer was key. Even if it wasn't necessarily life-changing money, it was enough for Estrada to help out his family.

“It gave me the opportunity to help her out a little bit on things (mom) needed,” Estrada said. “My brothers, my sisters, when they call me and need something, I got them.”

Estrada's four-school journey is unique among Alabama's players, but his previous experience at a mid-major program is not. Five of the Tide's top six scorers transferred to Tuscaloosa from a smaller school; Mark Sears spent two years at Ohio, Grant Nelson played three years at North Dakota State, Latrell Wrightsell Jr. was at Cal State Fullerton for three years and Nick Pringle started at Wofford.

The mid-major ethos is something coach Nate Oats appreciates. He comes from humble beginnings as well, spending years as a high school coach before coaching at Buffalo and finally Alabama.

“I think all these guys are trying to prove they belong at this level, just like I am, to be honest with you,” Oats said.

Sears, the Tide's leading scorer at 21.5 points per game, said there are plenty of advantages of having a roster full of guys who weren't five-star recruits. For one, they appreciate the resources, the better food, the more comfortable travel and bigger crowds.

Sears said it's mostly little things that stand out.

“On the road trips (at Ohio), we just ate hotel food,” Sears said. “But now, our nutritionist picks our food spot and it's something new every night.”

Estrada relishes the small upgrades as well. Oats said he was thrilled when the 6-foot-4 guard came available in the transfer portal, because he knew a two-time CAA player of the year would be useful.

The coach was also pleased Alabama's program could help Estrada's family financially. Oats said Estrada used some of the money to fly his mom to regular-season games. The NCAA pays for families to attend the Final Four.

“You go from Hofstra to a place like Alabama, there's opportunities for a lot of NIL, more than there was at Hofstra,” Oats said. “I did an in-home visit in the Philly area with him and his mom ... It was cool to kind of be in there and know that he could support his mom. I mean, she's a great lady. I love seeing her at games.”

So does Estrada. Now she'll get to watch him at least one more time in the Final Four.

Taking down might UConn will be a tough task — Alabama's a 11 1/2-point underdog according to FanDuel Sports — but this unassuming, high-scoring bunch from Tuscaloosa is ready for its shot.

“Once you get in the game, we're just trying to win,” Estrada said. “We've played a lot of games with packed out crowds. I think once we get in the game, everyone's going to settle in and it'll be just another game for us.”


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