"I like the fact that we have more experience than we've had recently," Gottfried continued. "From that perspective we're pretty excited about the season."
Rod Grizzard's decision to leave college early and enter the NBA draft represents the only major loss from last year's squad. The Tide's second-leading scorer last season, Grizzard was drafted in the second round by the Washington Wizards. "I wish that Rod would be a part of our team," Gottfried acknowledged. "But he's not. That's just a part of college basketball. You just move forward."
As the SEC's Player of the Year, Erwin Dudley would have actually been a bigger loss to the Tide. But the power forward decided to return for his senior season. "I was concerned," Gottfried admitted. "But I tried to give him as much factual information as we could to help him with his decision. We talked about it a lot. Erwin approached it from a very mature and levelheaded perspective. We're obviously very thankful that he's returned."
Averaging 15.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, Dudley was a force for the Tide all season long. "He wanted to find out if he was going to be in the top 12-15 picks in the draft," Gottfried explained. "In his mind that would be somewhat of a guarantee. That wasn't the case. So for him he had made his mind up that he does want to graduate. He's on track to graduate. He carries a 3.00 GPA, plus he's excited about his senior year.
"Erwin approached the process in a very systematic way. He evaluated and made a decision."
The Tide enjoyed a very good recruiting season last year, signing several talented players, including the state's Mr. Basketball, Kennedy Winston. At 6-7, 200 pounds, Winston is an exciting wing player somewhat in the mold of the departed Grizzard. "I'm sure fans are expecting a lot from (Kennedy), and that's unfair," Gottfried said. "He's a young player that will be a freshman. He's got to go through a learning curve that every player goes through.
"If you look back to Rod and Erwin their freshman year, they're certainly a long ways ahead now of where they were then. (Winston) is very talented. He's a good worker. He's got a great future, but those things take time."
2001-2002 turned out to be a storied season for the Tide, but the squad slowed a bit toward the end of the year. Mississippi State took a close win over Alabama for the conference tournament title, and a poor team performance in the NCAA tournament got the Tide bounced in the second round.
Gottfried commented, "Last year we played like we hadn't been there in a long time, which we hadn't. It was new territory for us. Now we do have some experience, and we need to be better. We looked like a tired team (in the NCAA tournament loss), and we need to handle that better next year.
"Experience is something that we haven't had. We have a little of that now, and hopefully it will help us."
The Tide hopes to make a run at its second straight SEC title, but Gottfried knows it won't be easy. "Obviously you want to stay healthy," he said. "We were very fortunate last year in that we did not have any injuries of significance. As a coach that's always a concern.
"We've got to get better play from our wing positions. We'll have a new player replacing Grizzard, and Terrence Meade, who's a senior, needs to step up. Whoever plays in that position we need to have a lot more consistent play."
And after Dudley and center Kenny Walker, Alabama lacks proven inside players off the bench. "Last year with Grizzard we had flexibility when we substituted an inside player," Gottfried related. "When we took Dudley or Walker out, we had the luxury of using Grizzard. That really created some mismatch problems for opponents. I don't think we have that luxury right now. We've got to find it.
"We've got more of a traditional player like Chuck Davis or Reggie Rambo or Lucky Williams. Somebody needs to step up for us."
Alabama and Mississippi State ended up the top teams in the SEC last season, with the Tide taking the regular season title and State winning the tournament. And coincidentally, both teams' best inside player shunned the NBA to return for his senior season. "I think both Erwin and Mario Austin (of Mississippi State) will be two of the best players in the country," Gottfried said. "There is no question that strengthens this side of the league. There will be some good battles. The West is a very strong side.
"There is a perception sometimes that the (SEC) West takes a backseat to the East. But I don't think that's accurate at all. I think the West will be tremendously strong."
Gottfried would like to finalize the season's schedule, but a court proceeding is delaying that move. Alabama would like to participate in the Coaches Against Cancer tournament, but a dispute with the NCAA over how such early-season tournaments would count must be resolved one way or another before Bama's schedule becomes official.
Gottfried commented, "We're still waiting. We're being held hostage a little bit by the court ruling. We were told it would be this past Monday. I've now been told it should be today. But I've been told that six or seven times this spring. It's in the judge's hands in Ohio. He gets to make that determination.
"There are a lot of coaches in a similar situation as we are. We're all waiting to see. It'll work itself out in the next few weeks."
At this point Alabama is one over the allowable limit of 13 scholarshipped players. Unconfirmed reports have senior guard Travis Stinnett giving up basketball and spending next season on scholarship as a student coach. But according to Gottfried no decision has been made. "As far as our personnel, we'll continue to look at that during the next couple of weeks," he said.
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