Tide Faces Tough SEC Opener

Basketball shifts into another gear Wednesday night in Nashville when Alabama (11-2 overall, 0-0 SEC) opens Southeastern Conference play against Vanderbilt (9-4 overall, 0-0 SEC) in a later-than-normal 9 p.m. Central tipoff with ESPN2 broadcasting.

"We're excited about the start of the SEC race," Alabama Head Coach Mark Gottfrieid said. "When you get into late December, everyone's mind starts shifting towards conference play. We're anticipating it, and that's where we're at right now."

Alabama rebounded from a 76-62 defeat at Wisconsin with a New Year's Day 68-57 win over New Orleans.

"I think we're playing pretty well," Gottfried said. "I think every team in the country right now at this point, the start of January, you always feel like there are so many areas that you can get better at and we're no different."

"Our defensive mind set is getting better, I think our execution, our offense is getting better. It's been real good at times and not so good at times," he said.

Alabama enters the game with three players scoring most of Alabama's points. Earnest Shelton leads with 17.3 points per game, and starters Kennedy Winston (17.0 ppg) and Chuck Davis (16.1 ppg) are close behind.

Starting freshman point guard Ron Steele is averaging 9.5 points per game and Forward Jermareo Davidson is averaging 8.8. The Bama bench players continue to be a question mark, contributing just 14.5 points per game combined.

"We know it's a great challenge to play at Vanderbilt," Gottfried said. "It's one of the great home-court advantages in the country. I think they've got a great atmosphere, great fans. I think they have a great advantage there. They're obviously very good at home, and their fans follow basketball well. If you talk to most coaches in the league, they'd agree that Vanderbilt is a tough place to go win."

It's not only the venue that Gottfried respects. The Commodores return four starters from their Sweet 16 team of a year ago and have won their last five games. Vanderbilt is led by junior guard Mario Moore, a pre-season 2nd-team All-SEC selection averaging 14.1 points per game this season.

Moore is the only Vanderbilt player averaging scoring in double figures.

The ‘Dores are second in the SEC in three-point percentage (.423 PCT) and have taken more shots from beyond the arc (130) than any SEC team.

"They've got a lot of experience," Gottfried said. "They've played a lot, they've won a lot and they've got a strong nucleus coming back."

Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings replaced Matt Freije, Vanderbilt's all-time leading scorer, with freshman Shan Foster, who is averaging 5.6 points per game in 2004-05.

"I think they're a little more balanced (without Freije)," Gottfried said. "They have similar sets offensively, but I think last year, Freije broke their sets a little more. They're having some success on offense. This year, they're a very balanced team. Mario Moore is looking to score more, and Przybyszewski is hitting threes. Julian Terrell is stepping up and their team is much more balanced."

Both teams will have to deal with the late tipoff time compelled by national television coverage. Alabama will travel to Nashville on Tuesday, and will conduct a shoot-around at approximately noon Wednesday before returning to the hotel to wait for game time.

"I don't really like it but at the same time you may find yourself playing at 9 o'clock in the NCAA tournament or the SEC tournament," Gottfried said. "We had to play a late game a couple of years ago in the SEC tournament in a game that didn't start until about 10 p.m., so in college basketball with the way TV dictates game times, it's part of it."

"We'll just try to make sure that we don't lie in the bed too long that day and get out and walk around, stay mentally fresh," he said.

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