Remaining games will tell this tale

There are a great deal of opinions as to what post-season plans lie ahead for the Alabama basketball team. <br><br>The Mississippi State crowd weighed in with its opinion last week, chanting "NIT" as the Tide exited the building after a loss in Starkville Wednesday night, but Tide fans are hoping for more.

Pundits, talking heads and "experts" have all weighed in with opinions of their own.

But, as far as Crimson Tide head coach Mark Gottfried is concerned, the opinions of only a handful of people are really what matter.

"I find it interesting that everybody knows what it takes to get in, but there's 8 or 10 people on that committee," Gottfried said after his team's blowout win over Ole Miss on Sunday. "They're the only ones who know.

"We just have to keep doing what we can do. We're gonna trust the committee."

Alabama fans know what it means to be at the mercy of the NCAA Committee. In 2001, after a 20-plus-win season that included victories over Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State, Alabama found itself at the mercy of the selection committee.

That year the Tide wound up in the finals of the NIT.

Come NCAA Tournament time, Gottfried definitely doesn't want to be on the outside looking in.

Instead of Alabama in the NCAA Tournament, it was the Georgia Bulldogs, who -- though they finished the regular season a mere two games above .500 -- rode the nation's toughest schedule into the SEC's last spot in the NCAA Tournament (the Dogs were bounced in the first round).

In spite of its excellent record, Alabama could not overcome its toothless early-season schedule -- which included such powerhouses as Wofford, Grambling and Arkansas-Pine Bluff -- and the fact that it had won only once away from home all season.

That '01 Bama team also stumbled late in the season, losing four straight to close the regular season, including a blowout loss at Ole Miss in the season's final game.

Not even a win over Vanderbilt and a close loss to Florida were enough to overcome those deficiencies.

So how does that 2001 team compare to this team, which also appears to be perilously close to the edge?

Actually, the comparisons are few.

Unlike the 2001 team, Alabama has hardly played a cream-puff schedule out of conference. In fact, the 2003 early-season schedule included a preseason date with Oklahoma (a win), a road trip to Utah (a loss) and a hosting of Xavier (a win).

According to CollegeRPI.com (www.collegerpi.com), Alabama -- in spite of its struggles -- remains 30th in national power ratings.

Far from a hot start and faltering down the stretch, this Alabama team seems to have picked its play up in the stretch run; Alabama finally seemed to have found its offensive rhythm in wins over Tennessee and Ole Miss.

Like the '01 team, Alabama has struggled like Sisyphus on the road. Alabama has won only one game away from Coleman Coliseum since the middle of December.

This factor may not hurt them quite as much as some may think, however, since no team in the conference has performed well on the road this season. Only two teams (Kentucky and Florida) have winning records on the road this season and one team (Vanderbilt) is actually winless on the road in the SEC.

Bama's regular season will end next Saturday with a tough road game versus LSU in Baton Rouge. (Associated Press)

And the Tide has played very well away at neutral sites this season, with its wins over Oklahoma and Ohio State coming in New York City and Springfield, Massachusetts, respectively.

Part of the problem, of course, is the conference that Alabama plays in.

The SEC will undoubtedly send at least six teams to the tournament, and at least four of those spots are already secure -- Kentucky, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi State. Tennessee and Auburn were also thought likely to go, or at least they were until both suffered consecutive losses this past week.

So the final spots are up for grabs. Most believe, however, that Alabama would need to reach .500 in conference play to assure itself of a spot in the tourney. Of course, to do so will require a win at home against South Carolina Wednesday night and in Baton Rouge Saturday against LSU.

On the other hand, Gottfried and partisan Tide fans strongly believe Alabama will deserve a bid, even if it's conference record ends up one game below .500.

A second win on the road would go a long way in bolstering Alabama's case along with its RPI rating. Alabama will, as Gottfried said Saturday, have to continue to find a way.

"Whether it's our zone defense or our man offense or Lucky Williams shutting down the other team's best player, we just have to keep trying to find a way to get where we want to be. I think our team is becoming very comfortable with what we're trying to do and how we're trying to do it."


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