Big Homestand

This is the homestand of truth for Alabama basketball. Two home games, Saturday and Wednesday, will point the Crimson Tide in its finishing direction. The $64,000 question: how much does this hard-taxed team have left in its tank?

Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried has coaxed a 4-3 SEC record out of his Iron Seven, including a 2-2 road mark, even while the offensive production of players such as Alonzo Gee, Brandon Hollinger, Evan Brock and Jean Felix are a nightly mystery.

Those Internet sites which concoct weekly NCAA Tournament projections include Alabama now as one of the final teams to round out the field. Alabama can move to solidify itself or fall irreversibly out of the fold with these two huge home games looming.

The opponents -- LSU and Vanderbilt -- are particularly troublesome.

Mighty LSU comes to Coleman Coliseum tomorrow at noon. Unbeaten in league play at 7-0, its confidence surging after playing a rugged non-conference schedule, John Brady's bunch has the league's best front line with Tyrus Thomas and Glen Davis, the SEC's most explosive freshman swingman in Tasmin Mitchell, and its best senior leader in point guard Darrel Mitchell, whom Brady calls the Silent Assassin.

Alabama frustrated Thomas two weeks ago in Baton Rouge and held steady in the paint until the last eight or so minutes of a 68-57 loss. The Tigers won the board battle 39-31. Darrel Mitchell did his usual Tide-killing with 4-of-8 3-point shooting and 19 points.

"He's got to be our top priority,'' said Tide sophomore Ron Steele, who is likely to guard the assassin when Alabama goes man.

Alabama led 42-41 with less than 11 minutes to play in that earlier game at the Maravich Center, but the Tide looked a little fatigued down the homestretch. That's got to be a grave concern for Gottfried as the minutes pile up on his thin roster.

Vanderbilt has been a thorn in the Tide's side like no other SEC team this side of Florida for the last half decade.

Kevin Stallings' crew has won four in a row over Alabama, including their last encounter in Tuscaloosa by a 70-67 count. That wild affair was the one in which Matt Freije and company bombed their way to a 30-9 lead and held off a furious second-half rally.

That wasn't the most memorable game in this streak, however, That claim belongs to the 2002-03 Vanderbilt team that took something like a nine-game losing streak into the SEC Tournament in New Orleans, then proceeded to drub an Alabama club that had been ranked No. 1 just two months earlier.

That Crimson Tide team desperately needed a league tournament win to bolster its NCAA Tournament credentials, but still stunk up the Superdome in an 82-62 loss to the 'Dores.

Vanderbilt's fundamental defense and pass-heavy, calculating offense have frustrated more-talented Alabama teams, but this current group does not have a stud like Freije. The Crimson Tide must run an active zone to get to Vandy shooters like Mario Moore and Shan Foster, plus keep Steele's ex-teammate DeMarre Carroll and Julian Terrell off the offensive boards.

Gottfried will have to employ man-to-man only as a change-up, as that matchup favors Vanderbilt with its excellent motion offense.

These games are massive for Alabama on more than one front. Win them both and the Tide is 6-3 with confidence swelling for a difficult stretch of three of four games on the road looming. Split the pair or get swept and the upcoming slate of at Ole Miss, at South Carolina, vs. Tennessee, at Arkansas, vs. Florida starts to look doubly brutal for Gottfried's skinny roster.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Thomas Murphy is the Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Register and contributes to 'BAMA Magazine and

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