Gottfried has his team playing well

Late Tuesday night, Mark Gottfried leaned against a corridor wall deep inside Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum. <br><br>As he answered questions from a gathered circle of reporters, a weary but satisfied smile spread over his face.

For the second time in four days, Gottfried, Alabama's sixth-year men's basketball head coach, had conquered a personal demon in dramatic fashion.

This time, Gottfried and his Crimson Tide team survived a furious challenge from arch-rival Auburn and held on for a 72-71 last-second victory. It was Alabama's first victory in Auburn since 1996, and Gottfried's first-ever victory on the Plains. That followed another stunning victory -- Alabama's 77-73 triumph over then-No.4 Mississippi State in Starkville, Mississippi, on Saturday. That, too, was Gottfried's first victory in Starkville -- first victory, in fact, in the state of Mississippi, period.

Add these two jaw-dropping road victories to the Tide's 2003-04 resume and it becomes clear: Gottfried is working one of his best coaching jobs ever with a young, inexperienced basketball team that has a 14-10 overall record and 6-7 SEC mark heading into the final three games of the regular season.

When this season began, Gottfried had a mere shell of Alabama's 2003 NCAA Tournament team remaining. Senior stalwarts Erwin Dudley, Terrance Meade and Kenny Walker were gone, and standout sophomore point guard Mo Williams bolted for the NBA and a seat on the Utah Jazz's bench.

Gottfried's starting lineup in the season opener against Pitt -- Evan Brock, Chuck Davis, Antoine Pettway, Earnest Shelton and Kennedy Winston -- averaged all of 25.2 points per game in 2002-03 combined.

A rebuilding year appeared imminent.

Actually, more often than not Mike Gottfried has stayed calm this season, reasoning that a young, inexperienced team didn't need to see potentially confusing emotions from their head coach. (AP photo)

Instead, Gottfried has coaxed a probable NCAA at-large berth out of this group, thanks to patience, hard work and persistence.

When a late comeback failed against Vanderbilt last week, Alabama's NCAA chances looked as slim as the odds of Kathy Bates winning the "America's Next Top Model" search.

With a 12-10 overall record (4-7 in SEC play) and two games against Mississippi State plus road dates at Arkansas and Auburn ahead, a more pertinent question seemed to be whether the Tide would host or go on the road for its first-round NIT game.

But Gottfried never quit believing in his team. Although his team lost six games in a seven-game stretch, including a five-game losing streak, he maintained that his guys were playing hard, working hard and that they'd soon get over the proverbial "hump."

This is, of course, a head coach's job. But his players backed up his words in Starkville, riding a second-half hot streak past 21-1 Mississippi State.

They could have easily folded Tuesday night, too. Alabama's zone defense -- so effective in the teams' first meeting in Tuscaloosa -- was shredded by Auburn's hot first-half shooting.

The Tigers made nine-of-19 three-point tries, and junior guard Ian Young sank his last six treys of the first half. His final dagger, a half-court buzzer-beater, gave Auburn a 43-35 halftime lead.

And behind momentum created from the ODK trophy presentation at halftime and continued hot shooting, the Tigers raced to a 50-38 lead with 17 minutes to play.

Gottfried didn't panic. He calmly switched to a man-to-man defense, which shut down Auburn's perimeter prowess and helped Alabama outscore the Tigers 34-21 the rest of the way.

It was a typical Gottfried coaching performance. This year, he has done more with less. He's playing with a former walk-on point guard in Pettway, two young big men who had no SEC experience before this season in Davis and Jermareo Davidson, a shooting guard completing his first full season as a starter in Shelton and one true emerging star in Winston, who averaged 29 points on the successful road swing.

With that lineup, consistent success would be a surprise in the SEC.

And there have been struggles. Shelton's knee injury and Winston's nagging knee troubles from an off-season surgery helped fuel the five-game losing streak. Three of those losses -- against LSU, Kentucky and South Carolina -- were to three of the four teams with winning SEC records.

Through it all, Gottfried has maintained a positive attitude while keeping a firm public lid on expectations. Over and over, through good and bad, he's said "we're not very good," turning it into a media catchphrase.

Still, some followers aren't listening. Internet message boards have crackled with criticism of Gottfried over the past three weeks. Funny how that's coincided with the conclusion of football recruiting, which some fans devote far more attention to than basketball.

Here's a stat for Gottfried's detractors: Over the past two seasons, only four SEC teams have qualified for consecutive NCAA Tournaments.

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.

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They are Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi State and... Alabama.

Alabama will likely never be a school dominated by talk of basketball, the way places like Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina are.

But in his six years, Gottfried has done an excellent job of pushing his team out of the massive shadow created by Paul "Bear" Bryant's enormous football success and his resulting cult of personality.

Now, he has his team in position for a third consecutive NCAA berth. If the Tide wins two of three games against Ole Miss, Arkansas and Mississippi State, that berth is all but assured. Win one of three and it'll be a little shakier, but a No.23 RPI ranking and the nation's toughest schedule should keep the Tide in the NCAA argument.

Considering what Gottfried has had to work with this year, that's pretty impressive.

Maybe soon, the Crimson Tide fan base will recognize that.


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