Gottfried: We have a lot to prove

With nine of twelve teams sporting winning records and six squads virtual locks for the NCAAs, this weekend's Southeastern Conference Tournament in Atlanta is seen by most experts as anybody's championship. <br><br>"There's parity in the conference this year," said Tide Head Coach Mark Gottfried. "It should be a great tournament."

The University of Alabama basketball team enters the 2002 Southeastern Conference Men's Basketball Tournament as the league's No. 1 seed. It is only the second time Alabama has gone into the SEC tournament (since it's renewal in 1979) as the tournament's No. 1 seed. Alabama was the SEC regular season champion and its No. 1 tournament seed in 1987. Alabama head coach Mark Gottfried was a senior starting guard for Alabama in 1987.

Friday the Tide will face the winner of the Arkansas/Tennessee contest. "Both teams are capable of advancing," Gottfried said. "Arkansas just beat us recently, and they're riding some emotion they can build on. Tennessee is very athletic. They really made an impression on our players.

All season long Antoine Pettway has provided instant energy for Bama off the bench.

"We've got a tournament full of tough matchups across the board."

Alabama defeated Tennessee 95-82 in a game played in Tuscaloosa. The Tide and Razorbacks split their season series, with Bama taking a 109-94 victory back in January and Arkansas returning the favor, 67-59, two weeks back. Alabama finished with a league best 12-4 mark, while Tennessee and Arkansas were 7-9 and 6-10 respectively in the SEC.

"There's just not much difference in the SEC teams from top to bottom," Gottfried said. "You just don't see another conference where the teams from 1-12 are so close. With other conferences, there is a big difference between the 1-2 teams and 8-9. I hope we don't get penalized because of our parity. Our league is just too good this year."

After clinching the SEC title with a victory over Auburn on February 27, Alabama was routed by Ole Miss in Oxford in the league's final regular-season game. "We walked in there with our ‘cool jackets' on and got humbled," Gottfried said. "I'm not going to make any excuses. We didn't handle the situation very well.

"But getting humbled is not necessarily a bad thing for a team. It can be a good thing. We have a lot to prove."

Currently ranked eighth by the Associated Press, most experts believe Alabama will be no worse than a No. 2 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. But an impressive run this weekend at the Georgia Dome could propel Bama higher. "We can still affect our seeding," Gottfried said. "Hopefully, if we play in the (SEC) championship game it will give us credibility. But we just need to go and play and let the chips fall where they may."

Alabama will be gunning for its seventh SEC Tournament title, second only to Kentucky. Alabama won the Southeastern Conference Tournament six times, in 1934, 1982, 1987, 1989, 1990, and 1991. The 1934 and 1987 SEC tournament championships won by Alabama were played in Atlanta, the site of this year's tournament (though the venue was different-The Omni in 1987). The 2002 tournament marks Alabama's 43rd SEC tournament appearance. The Tide has a 51-34 (.593%) conference tournament record. It has won six titles, advanced to the finals 12 times (1934, 1942, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1989, 2990, 1992, and 1993), and made it to the semifinals 21 times.

Despite being named the SEC Player of the Year, Erwin Dudley is most proud of his team's conference championship.

Having been snubbed by the NCAA selection committee last year, the Tide has a point to prove. "We haven't talked about it all that much, but this is new territory for our team," Gottfried said. "Nobody on our roster has ever played in the NCAAs. But we just need to go play---just concentrate on the game. That's the best recipe for success that we have."

Alabama's 2002 SEC Championship is the fourth conference title Mark Gottfried has won in his seven years as a head coach. It's his first (in his fourth season) at Alabama. In his very first season as a head coach, Gottfried coached Murray State to the 1996 Ohio Valley Conference Championship. He repeated the feat in 1997 (tying) and again in 1998 (giving him three consecutive conference championships in his three seasons there).

Though Alabama won the SEC by two full games over the second-place teams, Gottfried pointed out that his squad has had to scratch and claw for success all season long. But interestingly, he believes that could give his players an edge during March Madness. "We've had a lot of success in close games. Our defense has been solid. We feel like if we need it we can get a stop late in the game.

"Our free-throw shooting has helped us. Several of our players are among the league leaders in free-throw percentage.

"And in Erwin Dudley, we've got a big man that can rebound. That helps our defense get those stops."

Alabama will bus to Atlanta Thursday, but its first game is not scheduled until 2:15 (CST) Friday afternoon. "All year long we've found a way to win," Gottfried said. "We've just got to do that in the tournament."

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