What Could Have Been

Seven Southeastern Conference wins got Alabama into the 2003 NCAA tournament, but that might have been a cosmic make-up call for the 2001 Crimson Tide's exclusion. When the Division I Men's Basketball Committee revealed its tournament bracket Sunday7, Alabama was 99.99 percent assured of being left out of the field.

Why not 100 percent certainty? You never know what any NCAA body will do, right?

So, for the first time since 2001 Selection Sunday left Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried with that shellshocked look and a thousand-yard stare, the Crimson Tide will be doing its postseason business in the NIT.

Only Alabama and Auburn from the much-criticized SEC Western Divison did not win a game in Atlanta last weekend. The Tide fell way behind in the pecking order for picking a fifth, or maybe even a sixth, NCAA entrant from the SEC.

Arkansas seized its late-season opportunity with a win at Vanderbilt that catapulted the Razorbacks to the No. 3 seed out of the West and a first-round match with South Carolina, the unquestioned worst team in this year's SEC. Stan Heath, his job hanging by a thread with Arkansas newspapers already discussing his possible replacements, finally got the Hogs together. The Razorbacks beat Vanderbilt again and knocked off Mississippi State in what many considered an NCAA play-in game. No matter what happened in Sunday's SEC final against mighty Florida, it woukld have been a crime had Arkansas been left out of the NCAA field.

Could this have been Alabama?

Most definitely. Pluck one more win off the SEC slate, whether it's the heartbreaking end of the Tennessee game, a stronger finish at then-No. 1 Florida or at Ole Miss, or simply holding court at home against Arkansas or Auburn and this Tide team would likely have been dancing.

But as has been the case mostly all season, misfortune frowned on Alabama.

Gottfried manned up and shouldered the responsibility for this team -- probably the Tide's most anticipated since the 2003 club returned to defend the SEC regular season championship -- failing to meet expectations.

Between his recruiting and his coaching, he did not put a mentally and physically tough team on the floor. He used minutes to motivate the players who weren't bringing intensity, but he had to do it far too often.

Sure it was a complicated balance for Gottfried this season, considering the psychological trauma inflicted on his lone senior, Jermareo Davidson, and the year-long physical tightrope walk for All-America guard Ron Steele.

While we're faulting Gottfried, he should have found ways for point guard backups Brandon Hollinger and Mikhail Torrance to be more suited for the season-ending run than they were given Steele's predicament.

It's a bit of an apples and oranges comparison, but let's consider the ankle sprain difficulties of Steele and Tennessee's Chris Lofton. Steele missed two games with his injury and took a long time in recovering while playing well below his standard.

Tennessee's sniper missed four games, during which the Vols took their licks with a 1-3 record, but upon Lofton's return Bruce Pearl's club caught fire and locked down an NCAA berth. Ironically the key win during that stretch, which tilted the season's end in UT's favor, was its comeback to beat Alabama in overtime.

This combination of factors has led Alabama basketball to this crossroads. Some fans are disenchanted with the Gottfried regime and calling for change, though this is drastically premature in my opinion.

Gottfried has promised a re-examination of his organization from top to bottom, so at least he's cognizant that some things need fixing and he's prepared to do something about it.

In the meantime, the NIT is beckoning. A good indicator of Gottfried's intent will be to see how serious his team looks about winning the undercard tournament, which should begin with at least two games at Coleman Coliseum.

With or without Steele. With or without that much-desired toughness. Winning programs find a way.

Editor's Note: Thomas Murphy is the Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Register. He contributes to 'BAMA Magazine and BamaMag.com

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