Is Alabama already in?

Blame it on the all-mighty dollar. <br><br>Though they would never admit it, most college basketball coaches are focused on the NCAA Tournament right now. But first, because of big-money television deals brokered by the various league offices, college coaches must deal with the distraction of their respective conference tournaments.

Alabama's Mark Gottfried is no different. In today's world of college basketball, March Madness is the thing. Getting the all-important invitation--and then performing well at "the Dance"--has basically become the be all and end all of a coach's season.

But first the Tide must deal with the mini-marathon known as the SEC Tournament this week in Atlanta.

After an exciting regular season, in which Alabama and the other SEC squads fought tough and nail to position themselves for an NCAA tournament bid, first Gottfried and the rest of his league colleagues must contend with the Georgia Dome and Atlanta.

"We're going over there hoping to win the whole thing," Gottfried said at his press conference yesterday. "We've got to go one game at a time."

If you're going to participate, then of course you should head into the tournament aiming to win. But with the expansion of the NCAA Tournament field, the various league tourneys have become far more important to Cinderella squads--teams that know their only chance to make the NCAAs is by winning their league tournaments--than for legitimate NCAA contenders.

Depending on who you listen to, Alabama is either already in the NCAAs or needs to win its opening-round SEC tournament game to guarantee the bid.

Beyond the guaranteed bid for the tournament champion, Gottfried doesn't think the selection committee pays any extra attention to league tournament results.

"I don't know how much weight the committee puts into the tournament," he mused yesterday. "I think it's based on the whole season, start to finish, and not just what you do on a particular day."

Led by senior point guard Antoine Pettway, the Tide hopes to make a run in both the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. (Kent Gidley photo)

And from Gottfried's point of view, this year's edition of the Crimson Tide has already earned its way into The Dance.

He explained, "I think for us--from the NCAA tournament standpoint--I think we've done everything they'd asked us to do. Period. If we were to be left out of the tournament, my first question would be, ‘I need to know why, because you told me a couple of years ago (otherwise)."

Gottfried is talking about three seasons back, when he led a young but talented squad through a relatively successful regular season, only to be left out of the NCAA Tournament due to a weak out-of-conference schedule.

Since then he's made sure that Bama has become the poster child for strong schedules. In fact, last year a mediocre-performing Tide team rode a strong out-of-conference schedule into the Tournament. And this season Bama's strength-of-schedule rates No. 1 in the entire nation.

Speaking rhetorically to the NCAA Selection Committee, Gottfried believes his present team should already be in--no matter what happens this week in Atlanta.

"'We've played a great schedule,'" Gottfried said. "'We've played more teams in the top 100 I think than anybody in America. We have great road wins in our league. We've done everything you've asked us to do.' So (if we're left out of the Tournament), I would want to know the answer ‘why?'"

With two teams ranked in the Top 10 of both polls and seven teams ranked in the top 45 of the ratings, the SEC is looking to get seven or more teams in the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Besides Top 10 MSU and Kentucky, the SEC is touting Florida, Alabama, Vanderbilt, LSU and South Carolina for the Tournament.

Mark Gottfried strongly believes that his team has already earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament. (AP photo)

Besides playing the toughest schedule in the nation, Alabama's all-important RPI ranking is 23rd. The Tide is 16-11 overall, 8-8 in league play.

"Having said all that, I think what's important for us to do is to go to Atlanta not thinking about the games we have played and not thinking about the games that we want to play in the tournament," Gottfried continued. "We've got to think about Thursday night and hopefully Friday night and hopefully Saturday and hopefully Sunday. That's all we need to be thinking about."

The Tide is set to play a streaky Tennessee squad in the first round of the SEC tournament. If Bama can continue its recent winning run against the Vols, then high-octane Florida waits in the second round.

Alabama and Gottfried head to Atlanta with their sights set on the league tournament crown. But at the same time he's adamant that his squad has already earned the right to play in the Big Dance to follow.

He explained, "Outside of that, I will stand on any soapbox and tell the world, ‘I think we've done exactly what you guys have asked us to do.' And, hopefully that will result in an NCAA tournament bid."

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