Gottfried looking for answers in final exhibition

For major schools like Alabama, pre-season basketball exhibitions games are supposed to be just that. Exhibitions. A chance for fans to get a preview of the season, while athletes and coaches work out the kinks in anticipation of the <b><i>real</i></b> games to come. <br><br>But Tide Head Coach is Mark Gottfried is expecting a tough battle Thursday versus EA Sports. "When you go into the Dean Dome and beat those guys by 31, then you get everybody's attention," he said.

"It should be another good game. EA Sport will come in here and be competitive, which is what you like to have. They've got a lot of talented players, including Schea (Cotton) who used to play for us."

Alabama opened their season with a 103-77 victory over Athletes in Action. And Thursday will be another chance for the guard-heavy Tide squad to adjust its game. "Defensively we've got to be a smaller team that can really pressure the ball and get after people," Gottfried said. "And at the same time, we have to protect our inside guys. The first game didn't really test that. (Athletes in Action) didn't go inside a lot on us, so we didn't get to defend that as I'd like."

Erwin Dudley and Kenny Walker are Bama's only legitimate big men on this year's team.

Back last spring when the Tide finished second place in the NIT, many were predicting big things for Bama this season. But a series of developments robbed Alabama of many of its projected depth on the inside. Forward Sam Haginas left the squad for a professional career in Greece. Highly touted JUCO forward Rodney Bias failed to graduate from junior college. And freshman wingman Lucky Williams ended up a partial qualifier. Taken together, the Tide finds itself with precious little size around the basket.

Forward Erwin Dudley and center Kenny Walker are both quality players, but after those two Gottfried has a bench full of smaller athletes. "We've tried in practice to play with lineups where we're not looking at Kenny and Erwin in the game at the same time," Gottfried said. "I think we can get away for long periods of time with neither one of them in there. But when they're not in there, who plays what position? We've spent a considerable amount of practice just looking at different groups of guys."

Depth on the inside is a problem. But with names like Dudley, Walker, Rod Grizzard, Terrance Meade and Travis Stinnett all back, scoring points shouldn't be a problem. "I think we're going to be versatile on offense," Gottfried said. "We won't just ‘run and gun.' We can put combinations on the floor that will be very hard to guard. You've got guys on the perimeter that can make shots, and you've got inside guys that can score.

"Our questions are more on the other end. If we play a Florida (with height inside), how are we going to defend? How are we going to be able to survive on both ends?"

Those names together comprised Bama's starting lineup at the end of last season. But freshman sensation point guard Maurice ‘Mo' Williams has already crashed the party. "I thought Mo played really well last week," was Gottfried's assessment. "He came in and missed a couple of shots early, and then he took a deep breath. For his first actual college game he played pretty well.

"He's started the first game, and he's going to start again tomorrow. But I've told Mo that as quickly as he's earned the starting job, he can lose it. He's practiced hard and continued to practice hard."

Along with Dudley, Terrance Meade was named by Bama's coach as a standout leader this season.

Last season's starting five plus Williams equals six quality athletes, and at this point Gottfried is still watching to see who else on the roster will step up to earn regular playing time. "We still need to figure out how this team needs to play," he said. "It doesn't mean that we're going to play that way, but I don't think it's any tougher now to play with just 7 or 8 guys than it used to be.

"Each team develops its own personality on how deep your rotation is. If you're playing well with nine guys, you stay with it. The same with just seven. Each team is a little bit different."

Gottfried doesn't necessarily prefer to play with few athletes in his regular rotation. But he's not afraid of it either. "I was a part of a national championship team at UCLA, and we only played seven," he related. "And we won 19 straight games to end the season. With mandatory media timeouts now, you should be able to stop the game enough to keep your guys well rested."

Though Alabama lost several seniors off last year's squad, Gottfried isn't worried about team leadership. "Our older players have done a good job in practice," he said. "I look at Meade and Dudley as stepping up verbally in practice and holding everybody accountable. Rod and Kenny have done a good job, as has Travis. But those two guys are emerging a little bit. All of them are doing a good job, but Erwin and Terrance are really providing good leadership early."

If pre-season polls are any indication, Gottfried is making progress toward his goal of returning Alabama to national prominence. But frankly, he's not sure his squad deserves some of the recognition. Gottfried explained; "I was surprised that some picked us in the top 25. And I don't think we're a team that should have been picked to win the (SEC) West. With what happened over the summer in not having a full roster of post players, we're a different team. Maybe nationally everybody doesn't know the particulars of our team."


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