Registering a 25-11 record and a trip to the NIT championship game, Gottfried might be expected to be satisfied with the performance of last year's young squad. However, he quickly points out that there is much room for improvement. A mediocre 8-8 SEC record, combined with the fading performance of several key players at the end of the season, put a damper on the Tide's hopes of an NCAA tournament bid. Clearly, this will be the major goal of the 2001 team.
Most pre-season predictions have tabbed Rod Grizzard and Erwin Dudley as the two players to be counted on to lead the Tide in 2001, and Gottfried agrees. "Rod and Erwin were great sophomores, but they've left that ‘young stage'," he said. "They're ready to step it up."
Grizzard was one of the leading scorers in the SEC last season, but faded down the stretch somewhat. But Gottfried is quick to point out that time is Grizzard's greatest ally, "Natural maturity will help Rod more than anything. He didn't make the cut for the national team, and he's used the time after that to improve his game. He's got something to prove."
When asked if Grizzard's small-school upbringing had affected his college game, Gottfried replied, "When we signed Rod, we knew that he could be a great player, he just had to adjust to the intensity of the college game. I think he's done a tremendous job working and adjusting to the intensity and speed of the game."
Averaging 10 rebounds and 14.4 points a game, Dudley was one of the SEC's prime double-threats last season. And Gottfried thinks that the extra year of maturity will benefit the big man as well. "As you get older, and get more experienced, you get tougher."
Gottfried also is hopeful that this maturity and toughness will bleed over into the game of Kenny Walker, a player who, "blossomed in the NIT". If Walker's development continues, the combination of he and Dudley could prove to be lethal against teams that are weak in the paint.
One concern for Alabama fans--and admittedly the coaches as well--was the early departure of heralded recruit Gerald Wallace, who left the team for the NBA after just one season. "I was a little surprised by Gerald leaving," Gottfried acknowledged. "Not because he wasn't talented enough, but because I thought there were some parts of his game that needed a little more work."
With new scholarship rules and limitations, players leaving for the draft early can hurt a team much more than in the past. In fact, the stark reality that many blue-chippers will only be around for a year or two has been weighing heavily on the minds of SEC coaches on the recruiting trail. Gottfried said, "It does affect how you recruit when you know you might lose players early. (With the new rules), it hurts you when a player leaves."
However, with every player that moves on, there are others waiting to take their place. The Tide had a banner recruiting year in 2000-2001, and several players appear poised to make an early impact on the team. Heralded point guard Maurice ‘Mo' Williams leads the list, and is expected to at least challenge for the starting job. Gottfried said, "The good thing about Mo is that he's not under a lot of pressure. If he's good enough, he'll start, but if he's not quite ready, we have a bunch of other guys who can step up and play. But he's a special player; he'll be interesting to watch early."
Also, junior college transfer Rodney Bias may be counted on to log some minutes in the paint. His rebounding abilities made him a hot commodity during the recruiting season, and Bias might be able to come in and get some of the minutes left open by the departure of Wallace.
As Gottfried sees it, top to bottom the SEC is one of the toughest conferences in the nation. However, the 2001-2002 Tide is restocked and ready to challenge for something that came close, but was still just out of reach only one season before.
An NCAA tournament berth, and the respect that goes along with it.