Tide Basketball Expectations Will Rise

Two years ago, I watched Kenny Walker's eyebrows raise and a smile cross his young face. It was SEC Basketball Media Day ‘03 at Birmingham's Sheraton Hotel, and I'd just asked the then-Alabama senior forward about expectations following the 2002 SEC championship and an NCAA Tournament berth.

"Whoo! That's a good question," Walker said. "You know, everybody wants to be a national contender. Whoo! I really don't want to answer that question."

He had the right idea. On that day, league writers picked Alabama to defend its SEC crown, a sure sign that Mark Gottfried's Crimson Tide was headed for a deep NCAA Tournament run. Surely, observers felt, this would be the team that ended Alabama's Sweet 16 drought and perhaps made the school's first-ever Final Four appearance.

"I'm naive enough to think can win a national championship at Alabama," Gottfried said that day. "I think we can do it. I understand it's very hard to do, and we need breaks, a little bit of luck. But when we put our sights out there, that's what we want to play for..

"I'm not guaranteeing anything. We may not go to the NCAA Tournament, if we have a bad year. But we want our players to envision themselves playing for the biggest prize there is."

That very night, however, the first dent in the Tide's armor appeared. NCAA officials suspended star incoming freshman forward Kennedy Winston for what became the entire non-conference schedule over allegations that Winston received extra benefits while playing AAU basketball.

When he debuted in early January, the team didn't gel around him and finished a mediocre 17-12, sneaking into the NCAA Tournament before a quick first-round exit against Indiana.

The lesson? Predictions sometimes aren't worth the paper they're printed on. And expectations can be more burden than blessing.

I write this after sifting through the aftermath of Alabama's amazing Elite Eight run in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.

When the 2004-05 season tips off in about seven months' time, the Crimson Tide won't be flying under the radar. Mark Gottfried's group will be flying first-class–if early preseason polls are any indication.

Whether or not this is a good thing remains open for judgment..

Two years ago, Gottfried struggled with a team that returned four starters (minus first-team All-SEC swingman Rod Grizzard).

Next fall, he'll likely have four returning starters, too, minus point guard and leader extraordinaire Antoine Pettway.

So the question is this: What have Gottfried and his staff learned from the disappointment of 2002-03?

Hopefully plenty.

Judging by the just-completed season's surprising success and pre-pre-season polls, expectations will be higher than they've ever been in Gottfried's Tuscaloosa tenure.

ESPN.com's post-Final Four top 25 slated Alabama 11th nationally. Sports Illustrated tabbed the Tide ninth–right between Texas and Washington. (Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Illinois, North Carolina and Louisville were its top five.)

Those expectations are commonplace for programs like Kentucky, Duke or North Carolina, but they're stratospheric compared to where Alabama was pegged last fall.

Most analysts placed the Tide between third and sixth in the SEC West, a reasonable scenario considering Pettway and Winston were the only returnees with any starting experience. And neither had a full season of starting under their belts.

From nothing came one of the most amazing seasons in Alabama basketball history.

A team that many left for dead (or NIT consideration, whichever you prefer) following a mid-February loss to Vanderbilt made a remarkable stretch run that included heart-stopping road victories at Arkansas, Auburn and Mississippi State.

Behind Pettway's leadership, Earnest Shelton and Winston's solid shooting and Chuck Davis' capable inside play, they played like a true team.

They played like they cared.

In the end, it paid off in ways few could have imagined in mid-October.

Buzzer-beating shots from Southern Illinois and Stanford bounced off the front rim, granting Alabama entry into its first Sweet 16 in 13 seasons..

Then, against Syracuse, Pettway (who was bleeding from the lip after a Gerry McNamara elbow) calmly raced downcourt and floated a layup over Hakim Warrick's hands that broke a 55-55 tie with eight minutes to play.

His play ignited a late rally that clinched the school's first-ever Elite Eight berth, and although the ride ended two days later against eventual national champ UConn, it was magical while it lasted.

It was the ride some observers expected Alabama hoops to take a year earlier.

It was the ride they never expected Alabama to jump aboard in 2004.

Now, the challenge is tough and defined: get back to the Elite Eight. Get past the Elite Eight. Make Alabama more than just a football school.

This time, Gottfried and his group are far better equipped to do it. Gottfried has always functioned better as an underdog, but he has a selfless, happy and balanced group of players coming back.

Heralded freshman point guard Ronald Steele is the only question mark, but he should adapt quickly after a few early struggles. He can't replace Pettway's heart, but he can trump his talent level.

This fall, the questions and the expectations will come again..

This time, Alabama basketball should be ready.

Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald. He writes a weekly column for BamaMag.com

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