Getting the job done

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Go ahead. Admit it. <br><br>You underestimated this Alabama men's basketball team. It's OK. Nobody's judging. Heck, I did it myself.

So did a far more important observer of Alabama basketball -- Mark Gottfried.

Following the Crimson Tide's shocking, stirring, stunning 72-68 overtime victory at Arkansas Wednesday, the sixth-year Tide coach reflected for a moment on what his underrated, undermanned, inexperienced team had become in what looks like a gleefully mad March.

Back in October, Gottfried said, he talked up the unknown. And there was plenty of it.

Could Antoine Pettway handle the starting point guard job?

Could Earnest Shelton take command as a scorer after two years of spot duty?

Could young, skinny big men Chuck Davis and Jermareo Davidson make an immediate impact against the tall trees of the SEC and the nation's elite?

"In the beginning, I don't know who was really listening -- but I made a point," Gottfried said. "Sometimes in coaching the proudest times you have are the times you feel like there's some great satisfaction in what you're doing, you have a whole lot of unknowns and you don't know what you're going to become. We really had a lot of questions."

Even Mark Gottfried has been pleasantly surprised by this year's team. (AllSport)

Now, those questions have been answered, all in the affirmative.

Wednesday night, they answered the most important question of all: whether or not this team is an NCAA-caliber bunch.

The answer? Absolutely, positively without a doubt. This team is as fun to watch, full of emotion and heart. They are the yin to last season's young -- a team that was pull-your-hair-out excruciating to follow most nights, lifeless and often misguided all the way from No. 1 in the nation to a first-round NCAA Tournament flop.

Now, the core of that team is gone, which isn't nearly as painful as it originally sounded. Erwin Dudley, Terrance Meade, Kenny Walker and Mo Williams were all fine SEC players -- particularly Dudley and Williams.

Their departures were a classic case of addition by subtraction. Last season's Tide team was loaded, but too often, it turned into the Erwin and/or Mo Show, depending on whether Erwin was being double or triple-teamed on a particular night.

With the elder statesmen gone, Gottfried was able to (well, forced to) turn to a core of younger, less experienced players and former role players. Collectively, they're nowhere near as talented as, say, the 2002 SEC championship team. But their heart and want-to far exceed several recent Gottfried productions.

Night after night, they dig themselves huge holes -- 15 points at South Carolina. 22 against Vanderbilt. 12 at Auburn. Yet they always find a way to dig out and think positively.

Take Wednesday night, for example. In the first half, the Tide's heart looked in desperate need of a triple bypass. Three-pointers clanked short off rims. Offensive rebounds repeatedly found their way into Arkansas hands. Alabama nemesis Matt Jones ran what seemed like 50 basket-cuts behind sluggish defenders for hoops (okay, it was five).

Down 34-19, Gottfried laid into his group at halftime with a few unprintable words and one printable message: Work hard or someone else will in your place.

"He basically said we weren't ready to play and he's going to put five guys on the floor that want to play," Shelton said. "Even if he has to go deep into the bench, he's going to put five on the floor that want to play."

Three minutes into the second half, the hole was even deeper -- 41-19. At that point, plenty of teams would have rolled over and started preparing for the next opportunity three or four days down the line.

Trust me. I watch a lot of hoops. I've seen it happen.

Alabama puffed its chest out instead. Kennedy Winston canned two three-pointers in a row, and the first TV timeout of the second half was positively uplifting, even though Arkansas still led 41-25.

"We had two choices, roll over like a dead dog or come out and play," Shelton said. "We went in that huddle and everybody talked. We said, 'We've been fussing at each other, been getting at each other. Let's turn it up inside, let's stick together. Let's play basketball.'"

You know the rest by now. The Tide turned up the heat on defense, picked and chipped away at the lead and tied the game on a Pettway three with eight seconds to play.

Arkansas fought back from an early overtime deficit to tie the game at 68 with a minute to play, but Winston shrugged off two missed free throws and sank the game-winning jumper.

That's heart, and this team has plenty of it. Consider this: Wednesday's victory pushed the 2004 SEC road record to 4-4. That's four times as many victories as last team managed away from Coleman, if you're counting.

And Alabama has already bettered last season's SEC record of 7-9 with a game to play.

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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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Furthermore, at 16-10, 8-7 in SEC play, this group still has a chance to better last season's mark of 17-12.

That doesn't sound like much, but when you consider what Alabama lost, it's a big, big accomplishment.

Some of that credit must be tossed Gottfried's way, too. He is quietly doing his best coaching job at Alabama and proving that he can coach and recruit. Gottfried has been underestimated, and it's high time he gets the credit due him.

Remember, two weeks ago, this team was 12-10, 4-7 in SEC play and faced three tough road games at Mississippi State, Auburn and Arkansas. Gottfried's teams have won them all.

Sure, plenty of time remains. So do some tough opponents.

Keep underestimating this basketball team.

But don't say we didn't warn you.


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