"I had an opportunity to maybe coach in the same league as Mark at MTSU (when Gottfried was with Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference) and actually did not pursue the position because of how good he was at Murray. So I've dodged him once before but I won't be able to dodge him again," Pearl said. "I told them there's only one team going to the NCAA tournament out of the OVC and that's Murray state."
The two teams tried to schedule a non-conference game this season but Alabama ended up with a game at Wisconsin (the Badgers) while UWM booked a trip to play against Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse instead of facing Bama at Coleman Coliseum.
"Different team, same result," Pearl quipped.
Gottfried called the NCAA tournament "the greatest show on earth" because of the unpredictable nature of dramatic upsets that seem to pervade in the early rounds. The Crimson Tide will be the favorite Thursday at Cleveland's Wolstein Center for the 11:25 Central first-round game against Milwaukee-Wisconsin (24-5), but some will be thinking upset.
Pearl's squad is familiar with the arena, playing Cleveland State there once a year.
"It's an advantage but we're not playing Cleveland State. We're playing the Crimson Tide. It's not going to help us win the game. It's going to have to be a special afternoon for us because we've got to make shots."
Pearl countered the upset talk over and over Monday with his assessment of the match-up in a joint press/teleconference to preview the game between fifth-seeded Alabama and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the regional's 12th-seeded team, on Thursday in Cleveland. At least publicly, he sees a huge uphill climb for his squad.
"If Alabama wasn't in our bracket I would probably be telling you how far they could go, but I can't because that would be a conflict of interest," Pearl said. "The fans don't watch as much tape as I'm watching on Alabama. They've got to pick some upsets and obviously the 5-12 match-up has been a bracket where some upsets have been produced. Coaches tend to look at other factors."
Pearl is looking at Alabama's size, for one. The Panther's biggest starter is 6-7, 240-pound Adrian Tigert. UWM's normal philosophy is to use full-court defensive pressure throughout the game, and it Pearl expects to do against Alabama.
"There's no way I can duplicate their length and their athleticism. It's amazing watching the quality of the post play in the SEC. Chuck Davis is a load down there and every night he's going against a player of his own caliber," Pearl said. "They're a tough match-up for us because of their size. Our full court pressure will need to be disruptive to give us a chance. Sometimes full court pressure makes a team even better.
UWM's best player is Ed McCants. The Horizon league player of the Year started every game for the Panthers and averaged 17.4 points per game. McCants is a 6-3, 200-pound senior from Marion, Ohio. The Panthers' other four starters are all juniors.
"We're going to get our cage rattled on Thursday and chances are upper classmen are going to be able to settle down faster than younger kids. Most of the mid-majors will have some upper classmen. We try to gear up every few years, rebuild instead of re-load," Pearl said.
Gottfried jokingly told Pearl, "You could sell ice to the Eskimos."
"I know Bruce Pearl well. I've known him a long time. They've got the player of the year in their conference in Ed McCants. We've got our hands full but we're going to play and play hard," Gottfried said.
Gottfried won't be able to sell his team as the underdog in the game, but keeping his team focused on the Panthers is job one. Bama's Earnest Shelton, who bruised his thigh in Saturday's SEC tournament game and was sick on Sunday is apparently on the mend. Shelton returned to practice on Monday in Tuscaloosa after receiving an injection.
The squad will depart from Tuscaloosa on Tuesday afternoon and practice in Cleveland on Wednesday.