Can Bama Repeat?

You don't have Vanderbilt to kick around when there's no kicking game involved. Once sports moves indoors, the Commodores become competitive. The whipping boy of Southeastern Conference football, Vanderbilt can be very, very tough when it comes to basketball. And Vandy has a current four-game winning streak against Alabama.

Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried is quick to acknowledge the troubles he's seen when putting a team on the court against Vanderbilt. The Commodores have won the last three regular season meetings, and also knocked Bama out of the SEC Tournament in 2003. Last year Vandy embarrassed the Crimson Tide by a 70-56 margin in Nashville.

Alabama (12-8 overall and 5-3 in SEC play) will host Vanderbilt (12-7, 3-5) in Coleman Coliseum at 7 p.m. CST Wednesday, a game that will be regionally telecast by Jefferson Pilot.

Alabama is coming off perhaps its best game of the season, a 67-62 win over nationally-ranked LSU in Tuscaloosa Saturday. The Commodores are trying to end a three-game losing streak, including a surprising loss to Georgia in Nashville Saturday.

Gottfried said, "I think we have a tremendously difficult game in playing Vanderbilt. The thing that stands out is they shoot the three so well. The way they run their offense makes it difficult to defend them. And they have had success against us."

Despite Vandy's current position of next-to-last in the SEC Eastern Division, Gottfried said the Commodores were correctly picked to be the best in that division in pre-season polls.

It's not a big secret as to why Vanderbilt has closed Alabama's winning record against the Commodores to only 64-60 with four straight wins. "They have shot the ball well against us," Gottfried said. "And," he added, "we haven't played our best against them."

As much as Gottfried might hope that his team would have momentum and confidence from its victory over LSU, the Tide coach said, "Our guys understand we have to take each game individually. Probably every game we play will be a dog fight. We have to be ready to play each night, and our guys have done pretty well with that."

Gottfried said, "We've got to be good in our zone defense and good in our man(-to-man). And we have to mix it up. We don't have the depth to stay with one thing. We have to be good in everything we do."

He said Alabama has tried everything against Vanderbilt in recent games, "but they've just shot it well. We have to a better job than we've done."

Although Vanderbilt has balanced scoring, Gottfried said the point of emphasis for his defense has to be wing players Shan Foster (6-6, averaging 15.4 points per game) and Derrick Byars (6-7, averaging 11.6). "That's probably the best combination of two and three players as there is in the league," Gottfried said.

An unexpected Vandy star has been 6-7 sophomore forward DeMarre Carroll of John Carroll High School in Birmingham. Alabama did not recruit Carroll, and Bama coaches can't claim they didn't see him. He was a teammate of current Tide star point guard Ron Steele at John Carroll. Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said the Commodores spotted Carroll while looking at Steele.

Carroll is a starter for the Commodores, averaging 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.

Gottfried admitted that Bama didn't recruit Carroll. "He has exceeded expectations," the Tide coach said. "He is really doing well and has had a good season."

But Alabama has to be pleased with its acquisition from that John Carroll team. Ronald Steele may be the best guard in the SEC as a sophomore. "He has an aggressiveness late in the game, a will to win," Gottfried said. "He finds a way to win. He shoots well, he shoots free throws extremely well (60-67 for the season, 89.6 per cent and leading the SEC). He plays defense, he rebounds, he makes assists. He is such a competitor. He has a tremendous desire to make plays and be good. He plays at a high level."

Steele starts in the backcourt with 5-11 freshman Brandon Hollinger (2.4 points per game). Senior Evan Brock (6-9, 3.5 points per game) is on the wing with 6-8, 265-pound freshman Richard Hendrix (9.9 points, 7.2 rebounds per game) and 6-10, 220-pound junior Jermareo Davidson (13.3 and 9.2) inside.

The Tide, with only seven scholarshipped players, doesn't have a deep bench, but the two men who come in have made big contributions. Against LSU senior wing player Jean Felix had 15 points and held LSU's outstanding guard Darrel Mitchell to only 4-13 shooting and 14 points.

Gottfried said, "It's important for him to play well, and I think he has played better the last few games. He is scoring more, playing defense, and not making as many turnovers."

Felix is averaging 7.4 points per game with streaky scoring. He is only 29 of a team-high 96 three-point shots (30.2 per cent) and has managed to make only 21 of 40 free throws (52.5 per cent).

The other Bama sub is freshman wing player Alonzo Gee, an outstanding defensive player who averages 6.8 points per game.


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