Don’t cry for Bama basketball team

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 24, 2002

Sports Columnist

Maybe it was easier this way. A good old-fashioned out-played, out-hustled, out-behind the-old-woodshed butt-whuppin’.

When you play your heart out for the entire game and have your hopes dashed at the last second on a desperation shot by an inferior teamnow that’s a time for crying. But none of those descriptions apply to Alabama’s early exit from the NCAA Tournament at the hands of Kent State.

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First, the Tide really didn’t appear to play its heart out. Maybe they just didn’t have much heart left after their unexpected first-round war with Florida Atlantic. But they can’t say we didn’t try to warn them. Even if they had solicited the advice of local Atlantic Sun foe Troy State, what was Coach Maestri going to tell them?

Troy State, or anybody else in the conference for that matter, didn’t exactly have the magic formula to relegate the Owls to their customary position at the bottom of the standings anymore.

Make no mistake about it, Florida Atlantic was an opponent to take seriously (as many other 15-seeds proved themselves in the first round). They were very similar to Alabama in their athleticism, very well coached, and as one player put it, ‘they didn’t just come to listen to the music, they came to dance’.

Secondly, this was no last-second charge that sent Bama packing. From start to finish, the Golden Flashes consistently out-hustled and out-shot The Crimson Tide. They took better shots for the most part and made them count. Who would have ever believed, even if you gave Kent State a chance of winning, that they would have had the game well in hand halfway through the second half? At some point, you’ve gotta believe shock and discouragement kept the Tide from mounting any sort of comeback.

And thirdly, this was clearly not an inferior team. Inferior seed? Yes. Inferior schedule? Certainly. Inferior players? Up for debate. But inferior team? Absolutely not.

As far as the individual members of each team goes, I guess the team that features two underclassmen NBA prospects (one of whom is SEC Player of the Year) and the SEC Freshman of the Year would have to get the nod. But that’s not the point at all. If this were a slam-dunk contest or maybe a game of H-O-R-S-E, individual ability would mean something. But this is the Big Dance, where the best TEAM wins it all, and at least for one day, Kent State was clearly the better team.

One thing you’ve got to give Coach Mark Gottfried credit for, he didn’t spend much time crying over "what if’s" and "should have’s", and neither did his team. Sure they were disappointed, as they should be, but talk in the locker room afterwards quickly turned to positive accomplishments and the motivation of unfinished business for next season. Similar motivation seemed to spark the Tide to the heights they reached this season. After being spurned by the big tournament last year, they allowed the chip on their shoulders to carry them to the championship game of the NIT last season, then on to a regular-season SEC title this year, along with a top ten ranking and their first trip to the NCAA tournament in seven years.

And speaking of team: speculation had been wide-spread about junior guard Rod Grizzard and junior center/forward Erwin Dudley’s NBA prospects following the season.

Although prospects have until May 12 to announce their intentions to enter the NBA draft, both Tide stars responded to questions on the subject with their intentions to stay at Alabama for their senior season.

Although Dudley surely strengthened his draft status with his inside play and rebounding, another season to hone his skills could prove very profitable indeed, both in his trophy case and his wallet, not to mention Alabama’s quest for another NCAA Tournament. Grizzard especially would be wise to wait one more season before trying the pros. After a disappointing season in which he went 0-for-February from the 3-point line, he definitely has room for improvement. Although a constant threat to explode for 30 points on any given night, Rod could use the off-season to develop a conscience about when to shoot the ball.

If the two stars don’t pull a Saleem Rasheed and change their minds at the last minute, the Tide could find itself ranked in the top five in the 2002 -2003 preseason polls.

In fact, Alabama’s top NINE players look to return next year. Not to mention the SEC Coach of the Year.

Next year can’t come soon enough for the Crimson Tide.