Alabama, welcome back to the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. The Tide, second-seeded in the South Region, faces Florida Atlantic Thursday in Greenville, South Carolina in Bama's first trip to the "Big Dance" since 1995. The 1987 team that featured a senior gurard who now coaches the Tide was also a two-seed, and also sent to the South Region.
Just hours after its tough, three-point loss to Mississippi State in the championship game of the SEC Tourney, the Tide convened in a conference room at the Atlanta Hilton to watch the NCAA Selection Show. A year ago, a Crimson Tide team with 21 wins was shunned by the selection committee. This year's team has 26 victories, and was hoping to get a two seed in the South.
Mission accomplished for the regular season SEC champs of Coach Mark Gottfried.
"I'm excited about the tournament," said Gottfried. "I love our team. I love these guys. I think they're going to play as hard as they can play. I think they're going to lay it on the line."
Gottfried could not help but recall last year's snub on Selection Sunday, and how tough it was on him and his players. He said, "It was tremendously disappointing. So, summertime, fall practice, November, December, January; they have poured their heart into going to the NCAA Tournament. This is what we play for; it's the 'Greatest Show on Earth.' "
"That's every college player's dream: to get into the NCAA Tournament," said junior Erwin Dudley.
Though a snicker broke out among Alabama players when the Tide's opponent, Florida Atlantic, was announced, it was revealed minutes later that the team was not disrespecting its Thursday matchup. "That was because Mo (Williams) predicted who it was (the Tide would face)," said Rod Grizzard. "Everybody thought we were laughing at who it was, but actually, it was just Mo, playing like 'Cleo' over there," he added referring to the well-known TV psychic.
Grizzard said making the NCAA in his third season was "a long time coming. Freshman year, not knowing much about it. Sophomore year, knowing a little bit, but still not enough to get over the edge. Junior year, (I'm) kinda headstrong, and one of the captains on the team. When the going gets tough, I'm the one they kind of look to. The season's extended, like we wanted to in the beginning, so hard work's paying off. It's a whole lot better this time, because our name came on the (television) screen...instead of the 'bubble burst' part. It's a great feeling"
Freshman Mo 'williams had a rough last ten seconds of the Tide's loss earlier in the day, that included both a missed three-pointer and a turnover. He was a bit more upbeat at the Hilton than a few hours before, and said Alabama is a team on a mission despite it's two seed. "I don't think we have national respect," mused Williams just after the selection show. "People had us counted out before the SEC Tournament. We're still trying to gain the respect of the nation and hopefully we'll get it in the tournament."
Gottfried and his players are not taking Florida Atlantic lightly. "My team at Murray State," he remembered, "was a 15 seed, and our players walked into the Charlotte Coliseum feeling like we were going to beat Duke. We lost by three and had a half-court shot to tie it. I'm sure Florida Atlantic will be the same way."
"We took a tough loss today," said sophomore guard Antoine Pettway. "Now its time to re-focus... so we can go and take care of business in South Carolina. It's do or die now. We're not going to forget (the loss to Mississippi State); we're going to remember it, but it's going to be in the back of our minds so we can go forward."
Tipoff time for the Tide's opening round game should be announced Monday. If Bama defeats Florida Atlantic, it would face the Oklahoma State-Kent State winner in a second round game Saturday.
Nine Alabama opponents from the 2001-2002 season will join Bama in the dance. In addition to the five SEC teams, Utah, Missouri, Notre Dame and UCLA were named to the tourney. Bubble team Memphis did not get selected.