Problems Must Be Corrected

Let's be honest. We all should have seen the warning signs coming, a mile away. Maybe we were a little naïve, thinking this Alabama men's basketball team could live up to the lofty standards that last season's amazing Elite Eight run set.

Maybe, just maybe, that team was an illusion, a sharp spike upward, too much too soon, in Mark Gottfried's steady progress bringing Crimson Tide basketball from the depths in which he found it seven years ago to the national power he and Alabama fans truly want it to be.

After several days of careful reflection and introspection following the Tide's surprising 83-73 loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, a realization has settled over me.

Gottfried is on the right path. He's the right coach. With the right enthusiasm. In the right place. But he's still got plenty of work left to do in Tuscaloosa.

Make no mistake. Alabama basketball has come light-years from where it was during the David Hobbs era, heretofore to be known as the dark ages of Crimson Tide hoops.

Attendance and interest in the program had bottomed out, coinciding with the team's slide to the bottom of the Southeastern Conference.

Four years after his arrival, Gottfried hung an SEC regular-season championship banner from Coleman Coliseum's rafters.

A year later, he achieved the program's first ever No.1 national ranking.

Since 2002, he's strung together four consecutive NCAA appearances – including last season's program-best Elite Eight trip. That's the best anyone has done since a guy named Wimp stalked the sidelines in plaid coats.

So the program is improving. But Gottfried will be the first to tell you he wants more. He knows that truly capturing Alabama fans' attention lies with making an elusive Final Four trip.

"I think if we can make it to the Final Four at some point here at Alabama, I think that changes a lot of things," Gottfried said late this season. "I think it changes the way people would perceive your program."

Getting there will take a huge step forward.

This season, Alabama was a talented group. Point guard Ron Steele, shooting guard Earnest Shelton, power forward Chuck Davis and small forward Kennedy Winston could start for virtually any top 25 team, and center Jermareo Davidson would be a strong contributor.

But beyond them, there was virtually no depth to choose from.

Junior swingman Jean Felix stepped forward and became a major contributor in the second half of the SEC season, and junior forward Evan Brock is a strong defensive stopper. Freshman guard Justin Jonus could become an excellent perimeter player with time and work.

That's where Gottfried's options ended.

This year, he couldn't do what, say, Tubby Smith could do if his starters struggled in the first five minutes of a game.

Gottfried might send in Felix or Brock.

Smith could send in a whole new Big Blue wave, five reserves strong.

It's an intimidating sight, watching five fresh Kentucky players sitting at the scorer's table, waiting for a timeout or foul to come in and unleash hell on the opposition.

Good programs have talent.

Great programs have depth.

Gottfried and assistant Phillip Pearson signed one of the nation's top recruiting classes, led by McDonald's All-American forward Richard Hendrix, fellow big man Yamene Coleman, star prep guard Alonzo Gee and junior-college sharpshooter Ray George.

If Hendrix spurns the NBA for at least a year or two of college, this class will give Gottfried legit options off the bench.

Other things must happen. Guard Albert Weber must shake the affects of his late-season absence and become a scoring force, be it in Shelton's place or off the bench.

Big, gangly forward Shawn Taylor must take another step forward; he showed signs of athleticism and shot-blocking ability in limited duty this season, but doesn't weigh enough to handle the night-in, night-out bruising that SEC big men dish out.

The front-line players must improve, too. Davis, for as far as he has come in three years, still has off-nights. Steele needs to prove he can be a consistent scorer like he was while leading John Carroll Catholic to consecutive Alabama Class 6A titles as a junior and senior. Felix must find consistency, and he'll likely do it in the starting lineup, especially if Winston leaves early for the NBA as expected.

Most programs across America would kill to have these problems, "problems" associated with four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and an Elite Eight appearances.

They're seen as problems because Alabama regressed from an Elite Eight team to a group that was packing its NCAA bags two hours after the tournament began.

To turn this program from an occasional Sweet 16 interloper into a consistent Sweet 16 team, national power and serious Final Four contender, they're problems that must be corrected.

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