Disappointing Year

Alabama Head Coach Mark Gottfried had two points emphasis about his basketball team to get across on Monday, both important yet somewhat at odds with one another.

The first was an expression of disappointment, and to an extent, failure at what the team had accomplished this season.

"I think that we've had a disappointing year and it's frustrating," Gottfried said. "When our season is over we're going to wipe the slate clean. There won't be a returning starter in my mind. I'm going to evaluate everything, starting with myself."

"It starts with me, and then my staff, and then the team."

Alabama finished its regular season Sunday with a 91-67 loss on the road at Mississippi State, giving Alabama a 20-10 overall record and a 7-9 conference record. What was lacking in Starkville on Sunday?

In a word, "Toughness," Gottfried said. "I think that filters into every area. I have failed in getting this particular team to compete consistently from a toughness standpoint."

Interestingly, Gottfried noted recruiting as being on of the necessary evaluations made in closing the toughness gap the Tide suffered this season. "Some of that is in recruiting and some of it is in coaching," he said. "Sometimes when you recruit players they are who they are."

The loss Sunday was the fourth such blowout the Crimson Tide had suffered on the road this season. Arkansas blasted Alabama by 27 in the conference opener, Vanderbilt beat Bama by 21 and Auburn hung an 81-57 victory on the Tide, all back in January.

Couple the early season blowouts with losses in five of its last seven regular season games and Alabama is at best an NIT hopeful unless it makes an improbable run in this week's Southeastern Conference Tournament in Atlanta, which begins Thursday when Alabama faces Kentucky at noon central time.

"This team has shown at times it can be as good as anybody," Gottfried said. "Then there have been other times where we have met that threshold - in the second half against Auburn and the second half yesterday - where we needed to respond better and we have gone the other way. That has been a concern for me."

Gottfried isn't bowing his team out of postseason play, however, which was the other point he intended to make on Monday.

"It is now a new season," he said. "It's the postseason and everyone has a chance. We've got to get our team regrouped and ready to play and get the last game out of our minds and try to play the best we can. I think our players want to find a way to create something positive for their team this year and this gives us an opportunity to make something positive. I think they want to and I think they know they can."

Alabama beat Kentucky by 11 points in Tuscaloosa just over a week ago. That was with 15 point, seven assist performance from Steele, who has scarcely played since and might not be available for the tournament.

Gottfried said a decision on Steele would likely be made on Wednesday, but it's a certainty that the point guard won't be playing at 100 per cent health.

"100 Percent is a little unrealistic I think," Gottfried said. "In his mind it's whether he feels good enough to play where he's not going to hurt our team. That's been Ron's biggest fear. We need to decide that together."

"Let me say this, too, about Ron. You can't avoid talking about guy because he is heart and soul of this team and you have to keep addressing it: He has not been healthy the whole year. He has not been 100 per cent one single time the whole year. He has not been there for five minutes the whole season. He has had times where he fought through it and had a couple of good games, but since October he has not had the blessing of being healthy.

"He's fought through it and played through pain and with pain, battled all the way. You couldn't ask for anything more from Ron Steele. He battled all they way through the Tennessee game basically when the wheels fell off."

The winner of the Alabama-Kentucky game will face Mississippi State at 1 p.m. on Friday, and would then face a potential meeting with Vanderbilt on Saturday if seeding held up.

Obviously we're going to Atlanta to win the tournament," Gottfried said. "There's 11 other teams trying to do the same things. That's the only thing we have. Can a team do it in four strainght days? It's hard but its been done. That's where we have to be mentally."

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