Unfortunately, for a few brief moments in the second half last Monday, Morehead State seemed determined to make that stay at the top a short one. But led by the second-half play of point guard Mo Williams and forward/center Kenny Walker, the Tide used a 13-0 run in the second half to forge an 82-64 victory over the visiting Eagles and hold onto that top ranking for another week.
So far this year teams are consistently double- and triple-teaming Alabama's Erwin Dudley, last season's SEC Player of the Year and a serious candidate for All-American honors this time around. That strategy means that other Tide players must step up, and Monday was Kenny Walker's turn.
Walker led the Tide with 24 points, with 20 of them coming in the second half. Williams added 21 and seven assists. Also in double figures for the Tide were Terrance Meade with 13 and Emmett Thomas with 12.
"I think we took a pretty good shot from Morehead State," head coach Mark Gottfried said. "I liked the way our guys compete. There won't be any game that will be easy for us."
Now the Tide must take their No. 1 ranking on the road for the first time. They are expected to encounter a sellout crowd at Utah. Last year, the Tide defeated Utah at Bryant-Denny by a score of 76-61. But no question the Utes will be looking to score an upset against the top-ranked Tide in their home gym.
The Bama players understand they'll be entering the game with a target on their backs. "It's great, but we can't let (the ranking) get to our head," Meade said. "Utah's a good team. They're going to bring their ‘A game.' We just have to continue to move forward."
If Alabama is to hold onto its stellar ranking, then Gottfried and the players must find a way to improve their inconsistent outside shooting. Monday the Tide jumped out to a 25-12 lead midway through the opening half, but cold shooting plagued them the rest of the way. But so far at least solid defense has provided the spark.
Monday, when Morehead State started the second half with an 11-2 run, Gottfried relied on his point guard to turn the Tide. As he has done several times this season, Williams responded with a three-pointer to put the Tide ahead for good.
"I could see it in our eyes (that we would come back)--especially with Mo Williams," Gottfried said. "All the great players have tickers in their hearts in situations like this.
"Mo has always had that."
Gottfried is also proud of Kenny Walker, who more and more has stepped up this season to become a dominant force inside.
"Kenny is finding gaps where he gets himself open," Gottfried said. "Kenny is a player where right in front of our eyes, we're watching him develop. Monday he was aggressive, confident, and stepped up to make some big plays."
Now the Tide can enjoy their new ranking for at least another week, since they won't play again until next week's poll is released. Alabama shouldn't drop without losing.
However, the pressure will still be there as every team in America will be looking up to the Tide.
"Our players and fans should feel good about the situation," Gottfried said. "Being ranked No. 1 is not going to help you get a defensive stop or make a basket, but at the same time they should feel good about it."
For seniors Walker, Dudley and Meade, the current ranking is the fulfillment of a dream. Four years ago they (and Rod Grizzard) signed with Alabama together. At the time such a ranking was almost beyond hope. Their careers started with a 79-78 loss to lowly Northern Iowa, and now they are at the top.
Before Monday's game, Gottfried praised his three seniors--Meade, Walker, and Dudley--for all of their accomplishments in leading the team from the bottom all the way to No. 1.
"He told us when he was recruiting us that we'd be great," Walker said. "And now we are the first team of all the great teams that have ever come through this program to say that we are No. 1."