Basketball Hits Rough Road

Late Wednesday night, Mark Gottfried stalked through the bowels of Memorial Gymnasium, a rolled-up statistics sheet in his hands and a serious look on his face.

He walked right towards a pack of waiting beat reporters, then did a U-turn, making them wait to ask their questions in a press conference format instead of crowding around in a hallway, as is typically his style away from Coleman Coliseum.

As he walked, he squeezed, twisted and tapped the paper, as if trying to release the evening's frustrations without saying a word.

On this night, Gottfried had plenty of them.

His University of Alabama men's basketball team had just looked flatter than the Mojave Desert, falling 70-56 to Vanderbilt in its 2005 Southeastern Conference opener.

Vandy sank 12-of-25 three-pointers, out-rebounded a bigger Alabama team 41-25 and led by as much as 26 points in the second half before the Crimson Tide mounted a largely cosmetic scoring run over the last 10 minutes.

In short, it was ugly – much uglier than most expected it to be.

It was also further proof how special last season's Elite Eight run was. And how hard repeating it will be this March.

"We got outplayed tonight, no question about it," an angry Gottfried said when he finally spoke to reporters. "I've been saying it all along – this team has got a long ways to go. We're not very good right now."

Understand this: Alabama isn't a terrible team, not on the level of the Auburns, Ole Misses and Georgias of the world. But right now, the Crimson Tide is a flawed product.

On paper, the ingredients are there – a dominant big man (junior power forward Chuck Davis), a flashy scorer (junior small forward Kennedy Winston), a steady senior leader (shooting guard Earnest Shelton) and a talented point guard (true freshman Ronald Steele).

The only significant subtraction from last season's Elite Eight team was point guard Antoine Pettway. I scoffed when Gottfried said his team would desperately miss Pettway, a marginally skilled player whose biggest talents were leadership and clutch shooting.

Two months into the season, I realize how much Pettway meant. Steele is a talented player who has already set UA's single-game assist record, but he's still learning on the job against more experienced players.

As Gottfried quipped, "He isn't playing against Homewood High School any more."

Pettway also left a leadership void behind, which the Big Three – Davis, Shelton and Winston – haven't adequately filled yet.

Shelton is a talented spot-up shooter and driver, but lately he has developed an alarming habit of disappearing for long stretches, especially against good defense.

Last week at Wisconsin, he didn't score until late in the second half, with the game already out of reach.

Wednesday, he didn't score until early in the second half, with Alabama already trailing 47-29.

"He's one of our better players," Gottfried said of Shelton. "This team needs him to play better than he has on both ends of the floor."

Davis has provided inside scoring punch this season, but still struggles with foul trouble, especially when opposing coaches double and triple-team him, as Vanderbilt did Wednesday.

Together, Davis and Shelton combined for 10 points (eight coming from Shelton). Off-nights are understandable once in a while, but when your bench is as thin as Alabama's is, they're practically unacceptable.

Wednesday, Gottfried played only eight players, with freshmen Justin Jonus and Albert Weber and junior Evan Brock the lucky three off the bench. And of those three, only Brock played more than eight minutes (scoring five points in 24 minutes). Talented junior-college transfer forward Jean Felix hasn't solidified a place in the rotation yet.

Vanderbilt's bench (five deep, four of whom played more than 10 minutes) outscored the Tide 19-5. Gottfried said he's "communicated" to his bench that he needs more production, and it better come quick, considering the immediate schedule ahead.

Following a visit from struggling LSU Saturday night, Alabama must travel to 13-1 Arkansas before hosting archrival Mississippi State on Jan. 18.

It's entirely conceivable that mid-January could find this group 1-3 in SEC play, once an unbelievable thought considering the hype, pomp and promise 2004-05 began with.

Right now, however, it would surprise few.

This edition of Alabama basketball needs leadership. It badly needs perimeter defense. It needs cohesion.

And Gottfried will need plenty of patience.

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