And that's where Coach Mark Gottfried's squad will open tournament play Thursday. But no one at Bama is complaining. Alabama, with a 17-12 record, is the eighth seed in the Phoenix bracket. (This year the brackets were not designated as in the pastEast, South, West and Midwest–but rather by their regional sites. If Alabama can make it to the Sweet 16 it will be in Phoenix.) The Crimson Tide will play on Thursday in Key Arena in Seattle against the Southern Illinois Salukis. Southern Illinois is the ninth seed and has a 25-4 record.
The winner of the Alabama-SIU game will meet the winner of number one seed Stanford and Texas-San Antonio on Saturday. Gottfried said, "I know the number one and number two seeds have a better chance to advance, but I told our team I can give them all sorts of examples where teams came out of the eight-nine (seeds) game and went on to success. We need to believe. I know we're not a great team, but we're a pretty competitive team. When we got everyone healthy, we got it going pretty good."
The announcement of Alabama making the tournament field for the third consecutive year came very late in the broadcast. Gottfried admitted he was "a little nervous because of what happened a few years ago," but the Tide coach also said he had studied the situation and was "pretty confident" of being selected.
Four years ago a very good Alabama team was left out of the tournament as the committee decided to make an example of Bama's weak non-conference schedule. Since then Alabama has beefed its schedule up to the point that this year's Bama schedule was considered the nation's most difficult.
Gottfried said, "We played our way into the tournament. Of course, every team did, but I'm proud of what our team did. Before the season started, no one expected us to be here. I'm very proud of what our players have done. They have stepped up and done a great job. And, hopefully, we still have a lot of basketball to play."
First and second round games are being played Thursday and Saturday and Friday and Sunday. Next week the regionals will take place. The Final Four in San Antonio will begin April 3 with the national championship game April 5.
Although Gottfried didn't know a great deal about Southern Illinois at the time of the bracket announcement, he said that Alabama has a considerable videotape library from games televised throughout the season and that work would begin looking at the Salukis very quickly. And, he added, "I'm one of the few people around here who knows what a Saluki is. It's an Egyptian racing dog."
Gottfried spent some time in Carbondale, Illinois, in his teenage years when his father, Joe (now the athletics director at South Alabama), was head basketball coach at Southern Illinois.
Gottfried also knows SIU Head Coach Matt Painter, a former Purdue player who in his first year as head coach of the Salukis was named Missouri Valley Coach of the Year. Gottfried and Bama players also know the SIU star junior guard Darren Brooks, who averaged 16.2 points per game.
Gottfried said, "To be 25-4 and to have won 16 straight games during the season is very difficult to do. I'm aware and our players are aware they are a very good team."
Both teams lost two of their final three games. Both Bama losses came in overtime, to Mississippi State (a number two seed) in the final regular season game and to Florida (a number five seed) in the second round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. "Those last two losses were tough," Gottfried said. "Three of our last four games were overtime games. But those games are behind us. We've been through fire and now we're ready for the greatest show on Earth."
The SEC got six teams in the tournament. Kentucky (number one seed), South Carolina (number 10) and Vanderbilt (number 6) were selected along with Alabama, Florida and Mississippi State. Gottfried was disappointed that at least seven SEC teams didn't make it, pointing out the very high rating of LSU and the quality wins of Georgia. "There seems to be a ceiling on the SEC getting more than six teams in," Gottfried said.
Guard Antoine Pettway said he had seen Southern Illinois on television "and they are a good team. You've got to be good to win 25 games. Darren Brooks is a very good player."
Pettway said, "Everyone was writing us off a month ago. But we kept playing hard and we're probably peaking at the right time. The regular season is behind us, the SEC Tournament is behind us. Everyone starts fresh in the NCAA Tournament. For us it starts with 40 minutes against the Salukis."
Pettway said he had talked to his mother before the selection show and she had told him she had heard Bama might open the tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina. "She said she could drive to that game," Pettway said. "I told her, ‘We might be in Seattle.' Now if she wants to go, I guess she'd better start driving today."
Alabama guard Earnest Shelton said the trip to Seattle was no problem. "I don't care where we play," he said. "It's going to be a basketball court, a ball, and hoops."
Bama will leave to Seattle Tuesday and practice there Wednesday.
The Tide has played Southern Illinois once previously, in November of 1996 at the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska. Alabama won that second round game 79-58 en route to the Classics's tournament championship.
Alabama advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2002 and 2003, making this the first time since 1991 that Alabama has advanced three consecutive seasons. Alabama made the tournament in 1989, 1990 and 1991, the last time it went to three in a row. Alabama's selection to the 2004 field marks the 17th postseason trip for the Tide since its 1975 team was selected to the West Regional. Alabama's best finish in the tournament to date has been the Sweet 16 which it has advanced to seven times, in 1976, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1990 and 1991.
Gottfried was the starting guard on Alabama's 1985, 1986 and 1987 Sweet 16 teams. In his sixth seasons as Alabama's head coach, he has now advanced Alabama to postseason play five times, to the NIT tournament in 1999 and 2001 and to the NCAA tournament in 2002, 2003 and 2004.
Alabama's game vs. Southern Illinois is scheduled to tip-off at 11:40 am (PT). Ticket information will be released on Monday for Alabama fans planning to follow the Tide to Seattle.