Bama Surpassed Hoops Expectations

Mark Gottfried's words were short and clipped when I got him on the phone one night last June. There were good reasons behind his anger. Earlier that day, sophomore point guard Mo Williams had given up his last chance of coming back to college, renouncing his final two seasons at Alabama for the NBA draft. Suddenly, a team that wasn't that good with Williams and four-year starters Erwin Dudley, Terrance Meade and Kenny Walker was decimated.

A year of reloading had become a year of rebuilding.

That night, Gottfried admitted he was uncertain what he'd put on the Coleman Coliseum floor when practices began in mid-October.

He knew, though, that they'd have one common thread.

"I don't know what we'll have," Gottfried said that night, "but we'll have guys who want to wear the crimson jersey."

This team went much further than anyone could have imagined that night last June.

Despite an Elite Eight loss to Connecticut, this Alabama basketball team pleasantly overachieved this season.

Heck, they overachieved when they won their 15th game of the season. They overachieved when they beat Southern Illinois in the first round of the tournament.

They really overachieved when they stunned Number One-ranked Stanford two days later.

And they sure overachieved when they motored past Syracuse in the Sweet 16, making the Elite Eight for the first time in program history.

They did it thanks to one of the best team chemistries I've seen in a lifetime of watching college basketball. Unlike last season's number-one-to-nowhere team, this group was fun to watch and fun to cover as a reporter.

The best part of it all? It's been a complete and total surprise.

This team snuck up on everyone in the state of Alabama – and beyond.

Sure, they had a great start, going 9-3 against a non-conference slate which included victories over NCAA teams Charlotte and Wisconsin and NIT qualifier Oregon.

But who among the Alabama fan base paid attention? They were more concerned with just what happened to the Crimson Tide football team in Hawaii, whether or not heads would roll on Mike Shula's coaching staff, and who the latest oral football commitment was.

That's understandable, of course. Alabama has always been a football state, and football will always come first in the great majority of fans' minds.

Pigskin mentality allowed Gottfried's team time to gel without pressure.

It allowed Antoine Pettway to get comfortable filling Williams' shoes as a starting point guard.

It let Earnest Shelton get cozy shooting three-pointers from all over the court.

It let Chuck Davis and Jermareo Davidson learn without significant pressure and attention.

Now, it's paying off in a big way.

Come on. Would any of you have imagined in November that this basketball team would be sunning itself at the Elite Eight in Phoenix? Or that Chuck Davis – yes, that same Chuck Davis that averaged 1.5 points and 1.3 rebounds per game last season – would be gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated come mid-March?

No way.

Yet, it has all come together in spectacular fashion. This Tide team, led by the indomitable Pettway, was one of the closest-knit groups I've ever seen. Ask Pettway, and he'll tell you of how they worked and sweated together in Coleman Coliseum last summer, back when the college basketball world expected nothing of them.

Back when Gottfried said they had "no strengths, none."

Back when we all quietly expected a NIT season at best.

Somehow, they proved all of us completely wrong.

And they aren't satisfied yet, either. Next season will bring a great recruiting class led by Birmingham-area standouts Ronald Steele (who will try filling Pettway's shoes as the starting point guard) and Glenn Miles, as well as top recruits Albert Weber, a shooting guard, and junior-college transfer Jean Felix.

Expectations will certainly be higher. Alabama will be a popular pick to win the SEC West (but so was Auburn this season before the implosion that cost Cliff Ellis his job).

Davis thinks the future is bright.

"I feel great about it," he said. "We have a great team here. We only lose one starter, although Emmett Thomas will be a horrible loss. We have good guys coming in, and I think with the guys staying here, I think the future is only up."

Up towards the Final Four. That's been Gottfried's goal ever since he came to Alabama six years ago. Suddenly, he's tantalizingly close to fulfilling it.

He knows, of course, that big steps remain.

"Look down the hall, guys, and they're ahead of us," Gottfried said of UConn in the locker room. "And they're a great team, there's no question. But at the same time, we're at a point where we are, you're looking at that next step. You can see it. Can we get there? That's what we want to do."

That he was talking about such lofty goals at all is a tribute to what one amazing team – and a group of amazing coaches – did.

They wore the crimson jerseys far longer than anyone could have imagined.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes a weekly column for BamaMag.com


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