Tide Hosts Florida to Open SEC

The general consensus among those considered to be knowledgeable basketball observers is that the Southeastern Conference is not up to its usual standards. This season, the SEC is considered a league of good athletes and good coaches, but not good teams.

Don't try to tell that to Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried.

"I think the SEC is still one of the best two or three basketball conferences in the nation," Gottfried said Monday. "I don't really care what anybody says around the country about our league being down. Anybody that says that hasn't competed in this league. They haven't gone on the road and they haven't laced their sneakers up and looked at who they are playing every night.

"I think another thing what shows you in our league different than some other leagues is that all 12 teams in our league, whether it's Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Florida—it just doesn't matter—all 12 are capable of being the best one or two teams in this league. I think there are some other leagues in the country where you don't see that. They've had some teams at the bottom that are always at the bottom. In our league you could go from being number one to number six in your division. Six to one, that shows how even this league is. And that's what makes this league different than a lot of other leagues in the country -- the balance from top to bottom, one through 12. Twelve really good teams, terrific coaches. So that's what we've got in the SEC."

Alabama opens SEC play at 8 p.m.CST Tuesday in Coleman Coliseum against the Florida Gators, two-time defending national champion. ESPN will televise the game.

Gottfried can think of better teams to open up SEC play against than Florida.

"Do you want to try to hand pick you a win?" he said. "There are none. You've got to play every night. There are 12 great teams. You're going to have, on our side, 10 games in the West that I think are going to be battles. And you are going to have six against the East. And I think every team in the league is the same way. Tennessee and Vanderbilt and Ole Miss have had better starts maybe than everybody. And Florida, don't forget, they're sitting here at 13-2 even though they aren't getting the national recognition as everybody else. Even those guys, I guarantee you call (Tennessee Coach) Bruce Pearl up right now and ask him if he can find those easy wins, and he's not going to look at it like that. That's why this league is good."

Gottfried doesn't expect Florida to be depleted just because many of the starts of the two-time national champions have departed.

He said, "I think we've got a great opportunity and it's a great challenge. We're playing the two-time defending national champions. I think in college athletics when a team wins a national championship two years in a row, that's obviously very impressive. So for us to open the league with them, I think it's like a said, it's a challenge but at the same time our guys are really excited about getting the SEC season started. We've got a lot of respect for Florida. They've done a phenomenal, phenomenal job there, and we'll have to play awfully well tomorrow night." Gottfried said, "Some of those guys were on that team. They didn't play maybe a lot but they were there. I know (Walter) Hodge played a lot with them the last couple of years and (Marreese) Speights hurt us last year down there as a returning guy. And (Dan) Werner was in there. So they've got some guys that you are familiar with. And then the other young guys I think are terrific, very, very talented players. I think that's one thing that Billy (Donovan) has done at Florida: he's recruited at a high level and got some guys that are going to be terrific players. A lot of talent on that team. They do have some young guys but I think their young guys are very good."

The Tide coach said, "We've got to play Florida first. You've got to play them all, so to me it doesn't really matter when you've got to play them. You treat each particular game as its own separate entity. You're going to do the very best job you can in that particular game that night and at the end of the year you're going to tally them up and see where you are."

But before waiting until the end of the season to determine where Alabama is, Gottfried was asked where the Tide is now after finishing its non-conference schedule with an 11-4 record.

"We're obviously a lot better," Gottfried said. "If you go back to the start of the year, the uncertainty at our point guard position and not really figuring out who was going to be the point, who's the back-up, how we were going to substitute at the wings, inside, who's our interior subs? I think we've gotten better. I think when we went to Las Vegas and played that was a good learning trip and where we kind of took another step. We came back and played George Washington and played exceptionally well. Then we stubbed our toe bad and we didn't play nearly as well as we wanted to against Clemson and we came back. So we're doing a lot of things well. We've gotten better from the beginning. There's no question about that. People have asked, ‘Are you ready for the league to start?' And my answer is, ‘You better be because it's here.' And every team in this league I think feels the same way."

Alabama star forward Richard Hendrix said, "The season has begun. We start out conference play 0-0. We're just excited to take the court and hoping we can get started off on the right foot. Florida is a good team. We'll just have to make sure that we come out and play the way that we want to play."

Other thoughts from Gottfried:

On Alabama's point guard situation:

"I think Rico (Pickett) has gotten better by the week. It just seems like he just keeps getting better and better. He's more comfortable in the games. I think he's done a very good job for a freshman with our team. We've played a difficult schedule which has made it a little harder for him. Sometimes if you'd have known you were going to have a freshman starting point guard, maybe your schedule would have been just a little different. So he's had some challenges and I think he's responded really well. As far as our rotation, that can change game to game. But your players do need to feel comfortable about who's coming in and when, those types of things. So I think we've gotten a lot more comfortable with what we are doing now than we did the first three or four games of the year."

"I think last year, first of all, was a different year. We had a lot of things going on with our team last year, one being Ron Steele. So now we're in a situation where he's not in and out like he was last year, so hopefully those things won't happen again."

On Richard Hendrix's weight loss and play—have the improvements surprised him?

"We've talked about this 100 times this year about Richard: his weight, his conditioning, his stamina. His maturity. He's a junior in college now instead of a freshman or sophomore. I think there's a value in that that a lot of people sometimes forget. You search and see upperclassmen and guys that are now juniors and seniors. But I think Richard has had just a phenomenal year so far. He's been there every night. He's played. He's rebounded it. He's scored. He's defending it. He's doing it every night and that's been pretty impressive. He's seen a lot of different defenses. He's seen teams double him. We've seen a lot of zone. We've seen teams pack it in. And he still seems to be productive. Like I've said, I think he's just had a great start."

Is there a "magic number" of wins he's looking for to make it to NCAA tournament?

"I don't think there is. I just think for us, I don't know that there's a number. Like I said the other night after the game, I think our strength of schedule and those types of things will all be in our favor if we need that. We could have used a marquee win that we didn't get, but I think what we need to be concentrating on more than that way down the road down there is taking care of business each day. Each day. Just like today's practice. I want today's practice to be a great practice. Then tomorrow; then the next day. There's where you get better. That's how you improve. That's what I want. I think we have improved and we just need to keep on improving."

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