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One year makes a difference

Jim English

Sports Columnist

One year ago, the Alabama Crimson Tide and Coach Mark Gottfried were sitting around a television set, just like they were a couple of days ago, watching the announcement of the pairings in the upcoming NCAA basketball tournament. Well, okay, it wasn’t exactly like this year.

Sure the excitement was there, the anticipation, the nail-biting nervousness. But this year, there was a feeling present that was noticeably absent last year:

Confidence.

A year ago, the fate of the Tide was left precariously in the hands of the selection committee. Not always the most comfortable place to perch if you are a team considered "on the bubble". Thanks in large part to a comparatively weak non-conference schedule, the Tide then was left out of the big dance, settling instead for a spot in the NIT, where they made an impressive run which culminated in a loss in the championship game.

But somehow we knew that even a championship in the "nice parting gift" of basketball tournaments would have been little consolation. The question would have still been there ­ how far would we have gone if we had been included in the big one?

Alabama’s shored-up schedule, its regular-season SEC West title, and its consistent top ten rating in the polls and the RPI had them breathing much easier this time. Now they would only have to wait and see if they would garner the second seed they had been told was likely. A win in the SEC championship game would have pretty much clinched it, but Mississippi State had their own agenda, upsetting the Tide by three points.

After last year’s high hopes, Gottfried probably wouldn’t allow himself to believe the predictions of a high seed until he finally saw it for himself on the TV screen.

Finally, it was announced that Bama had indeed earned the No. 2 seed, facing No. 15 seed Florida Atlantic, champions of the Atlantic Sun Conference to which our own Troy State belongs. The Owls finished third in the regular season behind Georgia State and the Trojans, but earned the automatic bid by defeating Georgia State in the conference tourney title game.

But before Gottfried and company get the idea they will breeze through the opening round game, they might want to give Trojan coach Don Maestri a call. You may recall an earlier article about the double-overtime thriller that Troy State pulled out against FAU, thanks to a driving layup and ensuing foul shot by Robert Rushing to send it into the first overtime. A few weeks later, the Trojans lost a heart-breaker to the Owls at their home court.

Atlantic Sun Coach of the Year Sidney Green, a 10-year NBA veteran, has done a remarkable job with his athletic squad. After taking over the program, his team won only two games the first year and seven the second, only to complete this, his third season with a 19-11 record.

If Alabama can survive its opening-round game, as it should, it will face the winner of the Oklahoma State versus Kent State game. The winner of that game is in the Sweet Sixteen. If they win one more game, they would likely play Duke, the No. 1 seed in their region.

Don’t you know it would be a dream come true for Mark Gottfried to find himself shaking the hand of Coach K, (and no, I’m not going to try to spell it), before matching wits with him on the opposing bench? How big would Tide freshman guard Mo Williams’ eyes get if he found himself matched up against Duke senior Jayson Williams, arguably the best point guard in the country?

But let’s not look so far ahead. The Tide has its work cut out for it if it expects to survive the phenomenon known as March Madness. Mississippi State, as well as Auburn and a few others, have shown that if Alabama doesn’t come with its "A" game, they can easily be sent home early.

Yet they have this going for them: I don’t think we’ve yet seen what this team is capable of. We have yet to see a game when they were hitting on all cylinders. They have found a way to win quite a few big games this season in spite of themselves. They have relied heavily at times on contributions from bench players like Pettway and Shelton, when starters like Grizzard and Meade have failed to live up to their billing. Often, freshman Mo Williams has had to take over the scoring load when Gottfried had rather he concentrate on defense and distribution. The closing seconds of the SEC championship game, however, reminded us that, despite marvelous talents, he is still a freshman.

Rod Grizzard has picked a perfect time to break out of his scoring slump, as has Meade and Kenny Walker. SEC Player of the Year Erwin Dudley has been consistent all year long scoring and rebounding.

Try to imagine the damage the Tide can do if Grizzard continues to light up the scoreboards as he did in the SEC tourney, if Dudley and Williams remain consistent, if Meade and Walker return to their earlier form, and bench players like Pettway and Shelton continue to provide a spark in their reserve roles. A No. 2 seed means an awful lot of people who are supposed to know something about basketball think that you are one of the eight best teams in the entire tournament. That means the Tide is expected to make it to the Elite Eight.

If all the pieces of the puzzle keep coming together, and if Bama is peaking at the right time, it just might not be too far-fetched.