Things Are Not Like They Used To Be

Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum was rocking Wednesday night. That was no surprise. The stunner came that orange-and-blue clad fans were still left in the building–and cheering–an hour after halftime, while, as far as this pair of eyes could see, no Iron Bowl or lightly recognized football national championship trophies were anywhere near the basketball court.

Things Aren't Like They Used To Be

Nope, these people were cheering their Auburn Tigers, who had, somehow, crept back into a game they'd been out of all night long. With 1:38 to play, Auburn trailed number 14 Alabama, 53-52, and even if Crimson Tide forward Chuck Davis made both of his impending free throws, the Tigers would have a chance to tie at the other end.

This used to be a moment that signified the beginning of the end for Alabama hoops: on the road, in a somewhat hostile environment, playing tired, playing shaky.

Key words: used-to-be.

Davis sank both free throws. On the other end of the floor, Kennedy Winston blocked Ian Young's would-be three-pointer, and Davis responded with a falling down, did-you-see-that layup that Tide Coach Mark Gottfried called the "Hail Mary of college basketball."

Final score? Alabama 60, Auburn 55. It wasn't pretty, but it was better than what would have been a mighty embarrassing loss to a young, undermanned arch-rival.

It's another sign that the Tide is a true contender for the Southeastern Conference title, and an embarrassment of NCAA riches beyond that.

With three veteran starters in senior shooting guard Earnest Shelton, junior swingman Kennedy Winston and junior power forward Chuck Davis, a rapidly improving post man in sophomore center Jermareo Davidson and a veteran-like freshman in point guard Ronald Steele, Alabama might have the best starting five in the SEC, and certainly the best five in the SEC West.

The program isn't quite on the elite national radar yet, but it's close. And gutty performances like Wednesday's show that Alabama can handle adversity without losing its cool–a key in the white-hot pressure cooker that is the NCAA Tournament.

This group has played together. They've lost together. Won big together. Won small together. And they don't really seem scared of anything anymore.

"We've been through a lot, these guys, as a team," Shelton said. "We've been on the road plenty of times and we're finding ways to get wins on the road. Even if it's three points, two points, one point, it's a win."

That's the way it looked Thursday morning in box scores and agate type all over America. Make no mistake–Gottfried got lucky when ESPN and Jefferson-Pilot passed this game over for TV broadcast last summer.

This win, for Alabama, was kind of like making hot dogs. The end product–in this case, an SEC road win–tastes good, but you don't really want to think about what went into the process.

The Tide would have been blown out of most SEC gyms had it played like it did on the Plains Wednesday. Alabama shot only 39.1 per cent from the field, outrebounded the much smaller Tigers only 37-33 and was outscored in the paint by Auburn 32-10.

And without Steele–whose fourth foul kept him bench-bound from the 10-minute mark until two minutes remained in the second half–the offense looked out of sorts, falling into a nine-minute span without a field goal.

Gottfried knew he was lucky to get out of Auburn with his second win in as many tries, fourth consecutive victory over the Tigers and fifth consecutive win overall.

"It's good to win on the road," he said, "when you don't feel like you played very well."

It was another sign that the Tide has turned the corner towards becoming an SEC and national power. Wednesday was Alabama's sixth road win in eight tries, most in the SEC (Kentucky is 4-1, while Mississippi State is 4-2). It was also the third consecutive road win, all coming after a league-opening 70-56 thrashing at Vanderbilt.

Heading into Wednesday, Alabama was 11th in the rankings, which approximate the real RPI rankings used to select and seed the NCAA Tournament. That's the top ranking among SEC teams; Kentucky was 15th and Mississippi State 20th.

Is the SEC down this year? Absolutely. ranks it sixth among D-I leagues, behind the ACC, Pac-10, Big East, Big 12, Big 10 and just ahead of the West Coast and Missouri Valley.

Sagarin says it's fifth, ahead of the Big 10 and, of course, the MVC and West Coast.

That helps and hurts Alabama. It increases the odds of winning a second league title in four years; the Tide is already 5-0 against West opponents and has just three truly tough games down the stretch–at Florida Feb. 5, hosting Kentucky Feb. 26 and at Mississippi State March 5 to close out the regular season.

Even losing two of those three means the West title is still a strong possibility, if not a probability. Steal two of three and the overall title will likely hang in Coleman Coliseum's rafters.

Winning a "weak" SEC could hurt when NCAA seeds are announced, but Alabama has shown battling through tough March matchups isn't a problem. After all, the eighth-seeded Tide beat number 1 seed (and number one overall) Stanford and fourth-seeded Syracuse on its way to last year's Phoenix Regional final, where it lost to eventual national champ UConn.

That team was special, but this team might be even better than last year's, with a mature, confident group and an improving freshman floor leader in Steele.

If Alabama can keep up its current pace and improve as the season wears on, the Elite Eight might be just a steppingstone this March.

Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes this column for

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