Politicking to the NCAAs

ATLANTA -- Is the campaign just beginning? <br><br>Or is it already over?

Such a quandary faces the Alabama men's basketball team this weekend inside the Georgia Dome.

At his pre-SEC Tournament press conference Wednesday, Tide Coach Mark Gottfried sounded a little like a politician. Perfect timing, too.

Even though Alabama is probably in the NCAA Tournament, a little practice never hurts.

"I think every coach, starting at this point in time, sounds like we're running for president of the United States," Gottfried said, "claiming all these things we've done."

Right now, Gottfried's platform, if you will, looks pretty solid. Heading into tonight's first-round SEC Tournament game against Tennessee, Alabama is 16-11 overall, 8-8 (and a Timmy Bowers lay-up or two away from a 9-7 mark).

The Tide has the No.23 RPI in America, according to collegerpi.com, and is playing against the strongest schedule in the nation by all accounts.

Alabama owns quality victories over Wisconsin, Charlotte, Oregon and Mississippi State and impressive road victories at Arkansas, Auburn and Georgia.

Virtually every major tournament analyst says the Tide is an NCAA lock; bubble watches have long since welcomed Gottfried's group into the big dance.

But one, good hard slipup against the Vols tonight could turn a relaxed Selection Sunday into a 24-hour Pepto Bismol moment.

Smartly, Gottfried has tried keeping his team squarely focused on what lies ahead tonight and no further.

"I think we've done all that (the NCAA selection committee) asked," he said. "But the only thing we can control is how hard we play and how well we do here in Atlanta. That's where our mind is with our team."

Gottfried seems firmly in control, too. Three years ago his team was snubbed with a 21-8 overall record thanks to a schedule straight from the Hostess man featuring such heavyweights as Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Grambling and Mary Catherine Gallagher's Sisters of the Poor (well, maybe not, but you get the idea).

Mark Gottfried could do consulting work on what it takes to impress the NCAA Selection Committee.

A significant schedule upgrade followed that traded the Arkansas-Pine Bluffs of the world for Temple, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, UCLA and anyone else Gottfried could coax onto the schedule.

His mantra is simple: Anyone, anytime, anywhere.

Although the SEC's relative strength plays a role, his scheduling moxie is a major reason why the Tide's RPI and strength of schedule are so high.

"I think it was clear three years ago when Antoine was a freshman that the committee was loud and clear to Alabama in particular about its schedule," Gottfried said. "We were 8-8 (in SEC play) with 21 wins, I don't think there's any question we've done everything we've asked them to do."

Pleading your case helps, too. Gottfried will tell anyone who asks why his team deserves entry into the NCAA. He is a tireless ambassador for his basketball team, a valuable commodity in the politics-heavy world of high-major college hoops.

At a place like Alabama where basketball must fight for notoriety, a loud voice is essential. Wimp Sanderson had that. David Hobbs didn't, which is a major reason why the program slipped into disrepair following Sanderson's forced exit.

Gottfried has slogged through a difficult job restoring his alma mater to respectability. He deserves more credit than he gets, too. If all goes according to plan this weekend, Alabama will make its third consecutive NCAA Tournament. That's a feat Hobbs never sniffed.

What's even more amazing is the crew Gottfried and his staff has taken to the brink of NCAA glory this season. Outside of All-SEC swingman Kennedy Winston and deadeye shooting guard Earnest Shelton, his core is a mix of overachievers (senior point guard Antoine Pettway), spare parts (senior sixth man Emmett Thomas) and raw young big men (sophomore forward Chuck Davis and freshman center Jermareo Davidson).

This season is, without a doubt, Gottfried's best coaching job of his Alabama tenure.

His team has fulfilled every part of a good NCAA resume: big road victories, big-name victories and hot play down the stretch.

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Now comes the most important part -- a strong SEC Tournament run.

"Everybody wants to play well. It's just like finishing the season playing your best," Gottfried said. "I think it gives you more of a swagger, more of a bounce in your step and I think that helps the way you play. You obviously want to play well and advance."

Barring a complete face-plant tonight against the Vols (who are playing better, having finished the season winning two of three games) an NCAA trip is absolute.

And even an ugly loss would only return Alabama to the bubble -- and it would be tough to keep them out, considering last season's team finished 17-11 with a poor end-of-season stretch and an ugly first-round SEC Tournament loss to a Vanderbilt team that entered losers of nine consecutive.

Win or lose, it'll be hard keeping Gottfried quiet about his team's chances.

That anyone listens is a testament to the politician he is -- and the campaign that he has run so far.

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