"They're playing much better basketball now," Mark Gottfried said. "We're playing against a team at Arkansas that is playing really well right now. They lost their last game, but they played well at Florida. They've got a lot of weapons, and for us--we just need to play our game and keep improving."
The Tide (13-5, 3-4 in the SEC) takes on the Arkansas Razorbacks (6-11 overall and 1-5 in league play) tonight. Tip-off in Arkansas' Bud Walton Arena is set for 7 p.m. Jefferson-Pilot will telecast the game.
Arkansas leads the series 20-14. The last nine years in the series have seen major swings. Alabama won four straight from 1998-2000, but Arkansas has won four out of the last five, dating to the second meeting of the 2000 season. Last season the Tide and the Razorbacks split with Alabama dominating in Tuscaloosa with a 109-84 win only to fall a few weeks later 67-59 in Fayetteville. Alabama won the earlier meeting this season at Tuscaloosa, 61-51.
Since taking over the program last spring, new Razorback Head Coach Stan Heath has embarked on a youth movement, starting two freshman and giving significant playing time to other youngsters.
"There's been a couple games where I think we just kind of fell apart at times," Heath said of his young team. "I think that the road intensity has gotten to them a little bit. But they work very hard, and they play hard every game. I still think that our team is still fighting away and trying to right the ship."
For Arkansas, freshmen guards Eric Ferguson and Jonathon Modica are averaging 11.4 and 11.6 points per game respectively. "They played well last week on the road," Gottfried said. "And their young players are getting better. All their freshmen have had good games. Modica scored 26 points on the road at Florida, and that's impressive.
"Arkansas has got some weapons."
"Our team right now is coming off a good performance against Florida," Heath acknowledged. "So we're really not in a bad state of mind. Obviously, we would have liked to come out with the win against a very good Florida team. But now we're playing Alabama."
Specifically, Gottfried pointed to the Razorbacks' team hustle as contributing to their recent improvement. "They're a great offensive rebounding team," he said. "They're going after the ball as well as anybody in the conference. They're definitely better than the last time we played them."
For an Alabama squad once again suffering from an inability to play well on the road, Bud Walton Arena will be no picnic. "It's a great basketball environment," Gottfried said. "Their crowd is good. They really get into the game. It's just a great college basketball atmosphere."
Before defeating LSU at home last Saturday, the Tide had dropped three straight league games. But Gottfried liked his team's effort versus the Tigers. "We played a lot more aggressive," Gottfried noted. "In the previous game against Kentucky, we played tentative, and that's not how you want to play.
"There were a lot of things that we can still do better. We had a lot of good shots that did not go in Saturday. But we were aggressive in our offensive rebounding, which meant we found other ways to score."
Almost all season long the Tide has struggled to find its rhythm offensively, but Gottfried hasn't lost faith in his shooters. "At some point this season we're going to shoot well," he observed. "And at that time we will be a dangerous team."
The Tide, winners of both the 2002 SEC Regular Season and Western Division titles, has its work cut out in the championship chase. Alabama is grouped with several division teams at 3-4 in league play, trailing Auburn (4-3) in the West.
"I think we just need to go on the road and play well," Gottfried said. "That's something that we haven't done. If we want to win the West and get into the NCAA Tournament, we need to win somewhere outside of Tuscaloosa--and it has to be more than once.
"It'll be tough, but our goals are high."
Alabama remains on the road Saturday, February 8 when it plays Florida in Gainesville, for a noon CT CBS game. The Gators are 18-3 overall and sport an impressive 7-1 SEC record.
Both games, at Arkansas and at Florida, are sold out.