From San Diego

Coming to you from unseasonably cool San Diego, the place where they scrawl "Stop Plate Tectonics" on bathroom walls; where panhandlers on Ocean Beach want to know: "Can you spare nothing?" as if trying to psychologically confuse passersby into passing over a couple of bones; where they put fish on tacos (and the result is surpisingly tasty); and where the atmospheric conditions most of the day Friday and already this morning proved wrong the song ``It Never Rains in California.''

SAN DIEGO -- Four NCAA Tournament wins in the last three years isn't nearing Duke or UConn status, but it is certainly well beyond the status quo in the Southeastern Conference.

That's where Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried finds himself heading into the Crimson Tide's opening tip tonight against seventh-ranked and number two-seeded UCLA, hot dog-sniffing dogs willling, at Cox Arena.

There were some who wondered whether Alabama's race to the Elite Eight in 2004 might be the exception to the norm under Gottfried. That invigorating run, which featured wins over Number One-ranked Stanford and defending NCAA champion Syracuse, was sandwiched by one-and-dones in the NCAAs as a number 10 seed against Indiana and as a dreaded number five seed against Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The Crimson Tide's recovery from the Chuck Davis injury this year unveiled a refreshing new side to Gottfried's coaching and leadership skills, but another first-round ejection would have meant three first-day departures in four trips, a disturbing trend for a program battling to break into the nation's upper crust of basketball royalty.

Instead, Alabama turned in one of its best offensive performances of the year in outslugging number seven seed Marquette 90-85 on Thursday. The Tide is 2-1 vs. Big East teams and 1-0 against the Pac-10 in NCAA play these last three years.

Tonight's run against UCLA could be another career milestone for Gottfried. A win over the boys from Westwood, a true hoops blueblood, in an arena roughly 100 miles from its campus, would be a huge boost for Alabama's prestige level.

The Crimson Tide's win over Marquette also put to rest any vestiges of lingering skepticism over Alabama's choice as an at-large team by the selection committee. ESPN mouth runner Doug Gottlieb had suggested Alabama didn't belong in the field because it didn't beat any of those marquee teams that helped jack up its strength of schedule.

Gottlieb perhaps failed to consider that Tide point guard Ron Steele was playing through back spasms during most of the non-conference season. It was no coincidence that Alabama's burst in the SEC corresponded to Steele's recovery from that back affliction. Had Steele's back spasms continued unabated into conference play, I suggest Alabama would have wound up in Auburn-Ole Miss territory in the league standings. He's that important to the crimson cause.

The key to Alabama's refusal to wilt after losing Davis: togetherness.

Even as its numbers dwindled and public expectations for the Tide tumbled, the Alabama players, day after day, stayed strong by refusing to bow in to the negativity.

"This particular team has made me very proud of them," Gottfried said Friday. "The easiest thing to do (after the Davis injury) is build excuses. I don't think I've even remotely sensed that from them."

So, it is without excuses the Crimson Tide will take on the mighty Bruins tonight at 7 p.m. CST (5 p.m. PST) at Cox Arena, which was somehow constructed right into the concrete stands of the old Aztec Bowl.

Alabama surely realizes it cannot allow the 53 per cent shooting it gave up to Marquette on Thursday. It cannot afford to wobble against full-court trapping, as it did in the closing minutes against Marquette.

What Alabama could use is another above-and-beyond performance from someone like Jean Felix, who punished the Golden Eagles with his 8-of-11 shooting from three-point range. Perhaps this is an Alonzo Gee kind of game.

Comparisons have been drawn between tonight's game and Alabama's win over Number One Stanford in 2004. Yeah, they're both second-rounders, both played on the left coast, both against Pac-10 stalwarts.

But Gottfried claims UCLA is stronger and more athletic. The Bruins will also have a considerably stronger cheering section than Stanford had at Seattle's Key Arena, which turned against the Cardinal.

It would truly be an upset if Alabama took out UCLA and advanced to Oakland next week. Don't count the Crimson Tide out.

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


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