Rebels arrive for conference showdown

Sporting a No. 5 national ranking in the AP poll, Alabama is the team receiving most of the media attention. But Tide Head Coach Mark Gottfried knows that tonight's contest with Ole Miss is as important as any this season. <br><br>"If our team has a chance to win the (SEC) West, we have to go through Oxford," he said.

Alabama enters the game 19-3 overall and 7-1 in the conference, while the Rebels are two games back in the SEC West loss column at 6-3. But this will the first meeting between the interstate rivals this season, and the Tide will finish its conference slate on the road in Oxford. "It's going to be an excellent game," Gottfried said. "Ole Miss is very good. They've earned everyone's respect over the last few seasons. I think they should be ranked in the Top 25. They're good enough and they've played well enough."

"It's too early to tell who's going to win the conference," Gottfried continued. "We still have to play Ole Miss two times yet. I think Ole Miss will be there in the end; they'll be in the hunt. In that regard, this is a pivotal game."

Tonight's contest will tip off at 7 pm (CT) in Coleman Coliseum. As of yesterday, tickets were still available. Jefferson-Pilot will broadcast the matchup.

In all-star candidates Rod Grizzard and Erwin Dudley, Alabama may sport the big names. But Ole Miss counters with an extremely balanced attack. "They have a young team, and all their starters are about the same," Gottfried said. "All five are averaging in double figures. All of them can score. They come into your place and really battle you."

One more Tide win will give Gottfried back-to-back 20-win seasons as his 2001 team collected 25 wins. And it would be the 22nd twenty-win season in school history. A win against Ole Miss would tie for Alabama's best season start since 1977 when Alabama went 20-3 before losing to Kentucky in its next game. The 1974 team finished the season 22-4 overall, going 21-3 before losing at Florida and beating Auburn in its final two games.

Only a sophomore but averaging 14.7 points and six rebounds per game, 6-8, 230-pound Justin Reed has become the leader of this Rebel team. "Reed is a load," Gottfried said. "He's a really good player. He delivers offense for them every night. He's tall enough to play inside, but he's got a perimeter game. He can take the ball out and face the basket."

The game will mark a reunion of sorts for Gottfried and Rebel Coach Rod Barnes. Both men now coach at their alma maters and are considered among the top young coaches in the SEC. But 15 years back they competed against each other on the basketball court. "I think Rod has done a tremendous job recruiting and coaching," Gottfried said. "His team always plays with great intensity, and he just does a great job all around."

Gottfried points to the versatile play of true freshman Mo Williams as being key to his squad's improvement.

Last season the two teams split easy victories, with Alabama winning at home going away 82-63 and Ole Miss taking a laugher in Oxford 105-71. That victory earned the Rebels the Western Division title. "I think we match up with them pretty well," Gottfried said. "Their trademark is their man-to-man defense. They like to pressure you. We've got to be able to handle it."

The Tide enters tonight's game on a five-game winning streak, including road victories over Top 25 Kentucky and Georgia. The University of Alabama's No. 5 ranking in this week's Associated Press poll is Alabama's highest climb since 1974. That 1974 team, led by C.M. Newton and including a Freshman All-American by the name of T.R. Dunn who is now an assistant at Alabama, achieved Alabama's highest ever ranking at No. 4.

"I think it's exciting," Gottfried said. "It shows you that we've made some progress here. I think our players are hungry to do a lot more and they're not going to be content with that. But it is exciting to have been down when you try to build a program back up and it's a positive step along the way."

"Rankings are just for fun," Gottfried continued. "There's not much difference in most of the good teams in the country, except for maybe (No. 1) Duke and (No. 2) Kansas. After those teams it's a matter of who plays who and where. There are a lot of good teams out there."

But despite its current lofty ranking, don't expect this Alabama team to get overconfident. Gottfried explained; "I think our team's maturity will be the key. They really do look at the bigger picture. There are a lot of games yet. If we keep playing well, then we've got a chance to play for the championship. But we're not there yet.

"It hasn't been hard to keep our focus yet. This is a different team than last year's squad. These guys are focused on the immediate future, as opposed to getting caught up in all the rest."

Currently ranked second in the league in rebounding, Bama's Erwin Dudley has a chance at a career milestone tonight. Heading into the game Dudley has 789 career rebounds to his credit, and the big man needs only six rebounds to tie and seven to move into sole possession of tenth place all-time at Alabama in rebounding. "Erwin helped us win last Saturday at LSU," Gottfried said. "He was a force rebounding, and he often bailed out our offense with put-backs. He's a steady guy, who's been really good for us this year."

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