Can Bama turn it around?

On the night of Dec. 30, 2003, it looked automatic. <br><br>As the seconds ticked away, the Coleman Coliseum crowd chanted heartily. "OVER-RATED! OVER-RATED!" they yelled as Alabama finished off a 71-56 whipping of No.18 Wisconsin, one of the nation's best teams.

That night, an NCAA Tournament berth looked a foregone conclusion for the Crimson Tide men's basketball team, which upped its record to 8-2.

Junior shooting guard Earnest Shelton scorched the nets from outside, and sophomore forward Chuck Davis was a powerful force from ten feet and in.

Barely a month later, that same team is fighting for its NCAA Tournament life.

So what happened?

Did the collective public overestimate Mark Gottfried's young team? Or was the group merely playing way above its collective head?

The answer is somewhere in between, to be found in the eight games left on Alabama's schedule.

It is easy -- so easy -- to criticize Gottfried and the job he and his staff have done this season with a young, inexperienced group.

But the simple truth is that squeezing a 9-7 Southeastern Conference record out of this team would have been tougher than coaxing a pint of blood from a bag of stones.

For a little perspective, the starting five that Gottfried sent out against Pittsburgh in the season opener -- senior point guard Antoine Pettway, Shelton, sophomore forward Evan Brock, Davis and sophomore forward Kennedy Winston -- averaged a grand total of 26.3 points for 2003's NCAA Tournament team.

Chuck Davis played very well early in the season, but in recent games his inexperience has shown.

In other words, save Pettway and Winston, they didn't play much last year.

Yet Alabama somehow managed an 8-3 record against a tough non-conference schedule that included Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Providence, Oregon, Charlotte and Xavier.

Looking at that schedule, the surprise isn't that the Tide has come back to Earth. It's stunning that Gottfried achieved any sort of liftoff to begin with.

Heading into this week, the overall schedule was rated as the nation's toughest slate.

Unfortunately for Gottfried and Co., that liftoff -- an 11-4 start with a 3-1 record in SEC play -- raised expectations, much as last season's first-ever national No. 1 ranking did.

When Pettway's last-second three-pointer keyed a 45-42 victory at Georgia Jan. 21, it appeared a corner had been turned.

True. But no one knew a mugger was waiting around the bend. That night, Alabama won despite Shelton spraining his right medial collateral ligament.

With the team's best scorer hobbled, a loss at Ole Miss and rare home losses to LSU and Florida followed.

So did a freaky road loss at South Carolina. Follow me, here. Alabama rallied from a 15-point deficit with 12 minutes to play, led with two minutes to play and the ball in its possession -- and lost?

Yep. Such are the breaks when Winston -- a 70 percent free throw shooter misses the front end of a one-and-one foul situation that could have given the Tide a five-point lead with 1:25 to play.

Or when South Carolina center Kerbrell Brown -- who entered the game shooting 24 percent from three-point range -- sinks his fourth trey of the game. With 20 seconds left. Off-balance. And with Jermareo Davidson's big hand right in his face.

Or when Pettway -- who hit the game-winner at Georgia two weeks earlier -- takes the potential game-winning jumper in the lane.

It rimmed in. Then out. So did Demetrius Smith's follow. Hello, overtime and hello defeat.

As for Tuesday night's 66-55 loss to Kentucky in Rupp Arena? Well, the less said about that, the better. Trust me. I was there.

The overall result? A five-game losing streak -- tied for the longest in the Gottfried era -- and a team in desperate need of a victory heading into Saturday's home date with Tennessee, another middling, middle-of-the-pack SEC team.

Tuesday night after the tough loss to the Wildcats, Gottfried sat in the bowels of Rupp Arena and called the remainder of 2004 "a seven-game season." He's right. And if he wants another NCAA trip, it had better be a darn good run.

Alabama must likely win at least five of its last seven games, which would ensure an 8-8 SEC record and a 16-11 overall record heading into the opening game of the SEC Tournament.

A No.24 RPI rating and the No.1 strength of schedule help the cause, but as Shelton said Tuesday night, "we might have the toughest schedule in the country, but it doesn't mean anything if we don't have wins."

If the season-ending stretch doesn't result in an NCAA berth, is there blame to go around?

BamaMag.com is pleased to feature regular columns from Greg Wallace, one of the most talented writers on the Bama beat.

An avid sports fan whose job "just happens" to give him a seat in the front-row, Wallace is entering his third year writing for the Birmingham Post-Herald. He is a 2000 graduate of the University of Iowa, where he was a journalism and history major.

You can contact Greg at: gwrite1178@aol.com, and read his work daily at PostHerald.com.

Or is 2003-04 chalked up merely as a learning experience?

The last time Alabama was so young, freshmen named Erwin Dudley, Rod Grizzard and Kenny Walker were down low. That year -- 2000-011, to be exact -- the Tide finished 13-16, 6-10 in SEC play and 0-10 oon the road.

Two years later, the Tide won its first SEC title in 15 years.

Gottfried said Tuesday night that this Alabama team reminded him of when Dudley and Co. were young. Makes sense.

Bigger, older, stronger post men have manhandled Davis and Davidson all SEC season, and the only remedy is an off-season locked in the weight room. Dudley began as a skinny 230-pound freshman, traveled that path and ended as a chiseled SEC Player of the Year.

It can be done again, if the commitment is there.

But that's down the road -- maybe.

Right now, eight games separate Alabama from a potential NCAA berth.

But if this season doesn't end in March Madness, there's no shame -- at least this time around.


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