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Gottfried has Tide ready for NCAA’s

Sports Columnist

Several decades ago, Paul "Bear" Bryant accepted the job as head football coach at the University of Kentucky. He faced the daunting task of bringing respect and success to a football program that had been accustomed to mediocrity at best.

What made the task even more formidable was the fact that Kentucky was known nationwide as a basketball school, thanks to legendary coach Adolph Rupp (for whom Rupp Arena is named). It is widely accepted that lack of respect or recognition for the accomplishments of his players was a big reason The Bear didn’t stick around Lexington for long.

You’ve got to think Mark Gottfried can relate.

Upon accepting the head basketball coaching job at the University of Alabama, he had to realize that he had his work cut out for him. After all, this is his alma mater, and therefore he would know better than anyone that football borders on being a religion in the South, especially in the state of Alabama. In a state where the two primary sports are fall football and spring football ­ followed closely by winter recruiting ­ making headlines in a sport played indoors, on hardwood floors, would be an unenviable undertaking.

Although former flamboyant coach Wimp Sanderson, with his famous plaid jackets and sideline scowl, frequently made national headlines with SEC titles and promising runs in the NCAA tournament, the program had fallen on hard times recently. Under most recent coach David Hobbs, the best the Tide could muster was to provide the NBA with a few recruits here and there.

Since the return of former Tide guard Gottfried to Tuscaloosa, this time as the man in charge, the Alabama basketball team is gaining the kind of national recognition normally reserved for the guys who play across campus at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Top ten rankings, SEC Western Division titles, talk of national championship hopes, blue-chip recruits ­ all of which are refreshing headlines compared to the most recent ones coming out of Tuscaloosa.

Once, when explaining the importance of athletics in regard to overall school spirit, the Bear quipped, "It’s kinda hard to rally around a math class." Well, although you could probably never fill Coleman Coliseum to hear a lecture on calculus, Gottfried is leading a lesson in "Team Chemistry" that is bringing ’em out in droves, and should have other schools around the league taking notes.

Although Bama fans everywhere mourned the loss of ultimate blue-chip dunk artist Gerald Wallace to the NBA ranks after his freshman year with the Tide, the players who remained, along with one very notable new face, have gelled together into an unselfish unit which has been ranked as high as fifth nationally this season.

Returning star Rod Grizzard, who was himself feared to leave early for the pros, has been outspoken in his pleasure at seeing teammates "step it up" when has been relegated to the bench due to sub-par performances.

Terrance Meade, who earned a starting role for his long-range bombs, only to see his playing time decrease as he increasingly misfired, said, "I realize this team is better because I’m sitting on the bench. That’s a good sign."

Bench players have played a huge role in Bama’s climb up the charts. Earnest Shelton averages 8.4 points in SEC games and has hit for 21 points twice. All this after recuperating from knee surgery which kept him out earlier in the season. And Antoine Pettway, the tiniest Tider and crowd favorite, has come off the bench to hit double-figures four times in league play. His fearlessness and late-game heroics have been critical in victories against Kentucky and Florida, among others. It was his hustle that allowed him to get free to receive a pass from Shelton under the basket with fractions of a second on the clock to hit the game-winning layup against Florida last week.

Not since the days of Ennis Whatley has the Crimson Tide seen the likes of freshman guard Mo Williams, a smooth point man who displays slick ball-handling skills, uncanny court awareness, and the ability to light up the scoreboard at will when needed. Add to that tenacious defense and the calm and confidence of a veteran, and you have your likely SEC Freshman of the Year.

Bruising, yet soft-spoken, center Erwin Dudley has been the rock of this team. You won’t see him swinging from the rim and you won’t see him put up 40 points very often, but you won’t see the man he’s defending do it either. You will also rarely see him get beaten for a rebound. His 15 double-doubles this season and consistent play make him the odds-on favorite for SEC Player of the Year.

How sweet do you think it would be to Mark Gottfried if this team completed the rare hat-trick, by having the SEC Coach of the Year, Player of the Year, and Freshman of the Year trophies all reside in the Alabama trophy case? It would be a fitting tribute to his ability to recruit young talent, develop their skills to a high level, and lead them to success in one of the toughest leagues in the country.

But there are two other trophies that he would gladly demote these three to the lower shelf for. And he has these Tide players hungry for them like no Alabama team in a long, long time.