Tide begins SEC slate vs. Arkansas

After finishing its toughest out-of-conference schedule in years, the Tide begins conference play tonight as the always-tough Arkansas Razorbacks come to town. <br><br>"Our guys responded well to the challenge," Tide Head Coach Mark Gottfried said of their early schedule. "Now I hope we're prepared for the SEC."

The Crimson Tide plays host to Arkansas, 5-6 overall, at 7 p.m. CT in Coleman Coliseum. Bama's most recent game versus Xavier sold out, but a few tickets to tonight's game remain.

"We're excited and anxious to get going in the conference," Gottfried said. "The SEC is the best conference in the country. Alabama and Arkansas have had great games in the past.

"And if my memory serves, Arkansas was the last team to beat us in this building."

Alabama teams have won 90 percent of their home games since Mark Gottfried took over as head coach for the 1998-99 season. (GettyImages)

Alabama is currently working on a 26-game home winning streak. The last time Alabama lost a game in Coleman Coliseum was on February 28, 2001. Arkansas beat Alabama 66-63 on that date, spoiling an otherwise perfect home season that year.

After spending the last two weeks as the nation's No. 1 ranked team in the Associated Press rankings, a two point loss at Utah and a win against No. 19 Xavier dropped Alabama to No. 4 in the AP poll.

Gottfried said the players haven't worried too much about the team's ranking, but rather took pride in the national respect earned by the program. "Being ranked No. 1 was an important step in our program's history," Gottfried said. "I want the players to know that they've helped accomplish something important. Considering all the great players and coaches that have been here at Alabama, they should feel good about it."

Alabama is the defending SEC regular season champion, finishing at 12-4 in regular season league play last year. "I don't see us as THE team to beat (this year)," Gottfried said. "In the SEC there is not that much difference between the top and bottom of the conference. There are really three to four teams in the conference that could all be right there at the end."

The Razorbacks begin this season with a new head coach, but Stan Heath will be a familiar face to the Alabama players. The 2002 Coach of the Year in the Middle Atlantic Conference, Heath and Kent State bounced the Tide from last year's NCAA tournament. But Gottfried scoffs at the idea of revenge. "Not unless Coach Heath suits up," Gottfried joked. "I don't know what kind of a defender he is…But really, this is a different team and a different school."

Very much a team in transition, Arkansas lists three seniors and two freshmen in its starting lineup. But both Razorback freshmen average in double figures. "I like their players," Gottfried said. "Their freshman guys are very good and extremely quick. You see speed and athleticism in their lineup. But it's very hard to go through this league with young players. You can't teach experience. It only comes from doing."

Emmett Thomas's status for tonight's game is questionable. (Associated Press)

Freshman guards Eric Ferguson and Jonathon Modica lead Arkansas in scoring with 12.4 and 11.5 points per game respectively. Senior forward Dionisio Gomez paces the Razorbacks on the inside, averaging 9.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

Having strained his patellar tendon in the win over Xavier, starting Alabama guard Emmett Thomas may not be available tonight. "If that happens, then Terrance Meade and Earnest Shelton will both need to step up," Gottfried said. "Demetrius Smith played some (versus Xavier), but he's still gimpy with an ankle. We need another perimeter player to step up and be productive."

Despite its excellent record, the Tide has often struggled this season with its outside shooting. But help should be on the way, as freshman forward Kennedy Winston has finally been cleared to play. Last year's "Mr. Basketball" in the state of Alabama, Winston will begin his Tide career versus the Razorbacks. "The coaches and players are all anxious for him to play," Gottfried said.

Seating 15,043, Coleman Coliseum is not easy to fill. But Alabama has played in front of capacity crowds in its two most recent home games, a trend Gottfried would like to continue. "The Xavier crowd was great," Gottfried said. "Our players feed off that."

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