Rankings are nice, but Tide not satisfied

The Tide is riding high. Last Saturday, in front of a national audience on ESPN, Alabama took an impressive 64-61 victory on the road over the Kentucky Wildcats. <br><br>But Tide Head Coach Mark Gottfried isn't satisfied. "A game like that is great, but it guarantees you nothing," he said.

"It was a good win, but we've got a lot of basketball left."

Saturday's victory pushed Alabama's record to 17-3 overall and 5-1 in the SEC, the only team in the league with only one loss. ESPN/USA Today ranks Bama eighth, while the Associated Press lists the Tide at No. 7.

National rankings are nice, but Gottfried's goal is the NCAA Tournament. And his experience last season taught him to never take anything for granted. "We could win every game from here to the end of the season, and I'm not convinced we're in," he said with no trace of a smile. "Until they call your name, you don't know anything."

Remember last season?

Gottfried does.

After being ranked for most of the year, Alabama hosted national power Ohio State on television. And after handling the Buckeyes 85-67, most pundits had the Tide as a lock for post-season play.

But four conference losses in a row followed, dropping the Tide to 22-10 overall, and only 8-8 in conference play.

The play of true freshman point guard Mo Williams is one reason Alabama is an improved team this season. (Associated Press)

Gottfried recalled how it played out. "Last year we were ranked (in the Top 25) for most of the season. At the end of February we beat a non-conference opponent that ended up a #5 seed in their bracket."

But Bama's losing streak and average conference mark gave the selection committee members all the excuse they needed. And when the brackets were announced the Tide had gotten the shaft. "Last year we were on the bubble," Gottfried said. "And they dissected our schedule.

"We got dissected like a frog."

"Sitting in that room on that Sunday afternoon waiting to hear the NCAA Tournament rankings, I've never been around a more disappointed group of people in my life."

But the bitter frustrations of last season have been turned to positive energy in 2002. "This is as purposed and focused a group of athletes as I've ever been around," Gottfried explained. "And I trace it back to one thing. There is absolutely no way this group wants to let that happen again."

Starting back during summer workouts and continuing through the fall, the current squad has been on a mission. "We talked this year about it," Gottfried said. "Our goal is to remove ourselves from the discussion. Saturday was a big win for our program, but it only counts one. We've got a big week ahead of us, and there are a lot of games left to play."

"Everybody is excited," Gottfried acknowledged. "Just that one game bumped us in one poll from 14th all the way up to 8th. So obviously it helped us nationally. But we're guaranteed nothing."

During Gottfried's three plus seasons at the helm, the Tide has improved steadily. But this week marks the squad's first appearance in the Top Ten in years.

But he's not seriously worried about anyone becoming too confident. "It's a concern," Gottfried said. "We're dealing with uncharted (poll) waters here with this team. On the plane flying back from Kentucky, we talked about that. We're not even at the halfway point in our conference race."

"We've got to realize that every game is only one game," Gottfried continued. "We lost at Auburn, and you would have thought we lost five games. Now we've beaten Kentucky, but it's only one win. We've got to get ready for the next game."

Along with Bama's win over Kentucky, last weekend saw Arkansas down No.5 Florida in overtime and Vanderbilt take a two-point win over fifteenth-ranked Georgia. "The general public may have been surprised," Gottfried said. "But I'm not. I've said all along that there is just not that much difference in our conference between the lower teams and the very best. Games on the road are always decided by a couple of plays late."

Along with a previous win over Georgia in Athens, the Tide has now won two consecutive conference games on the road. The mini-streak indicates the proverbial monkey has finally been removed from Gottfried's back.

But are the Alabama athletes now actually looking forward to playing on the road away from Coleman Coliseum? "I think they're probably more anxious than they were," Gottfried replied. "Once you get over the top of the hill, you feel like you can get over it again.

"I hope that problem is behind us."

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