"I think our resume' is very attractive," Gottfried continued. "Our RPI rating and strength of schedule are as tough as any in the country."
With 65 teams participating in the annual tournament known as "March Madness," Alabama's case going in appears to be strong. An all-important RPI rating in the low 30s coupled with a strength of schedule ranking of 21 argue in the Tide's favor. Of course critics point to a sub-.500 conference mark (7-9) and Bama's abysmal 1-8 record on the road.
The Tide's overall record of 17-10 (18-11 after the conference tourney?) is good but not great. However, Gottfried believes there is no magic number. "I don't think total wins is a significant factor (in being selected)," he said. "The selection committee has made very clear that an (extra few wins) versus average teams means nothing. At least that's been their criteria in the past."
The Tide was undefeated earlier in the season, climbing as high as No. 1 in the national polls. Two important early wins against quality out-of-conference competition (68-62 over Oklahoma on a neutral court and 65-58 over Xavier in Tuscaloosa) are also key. The Tide frankly played poorly on the road versus conference opponents, but Gottfried minimizes that mark. "We might be playing better now than early in the year," he said. "Our road schedule in the conference has been tough. We've had difficult places to play. We stumbled in the middle of our season, but I like how we've finished."
Two years ago the Tide's overall record was actually better than this season's, yet Bama was left out of the NCAA Tournament, passed over in favor of a Georgia squad with a worse record but a stronger out-of-conference schedule. "We were sent a message loud and clear about non-conference schedules," Gottfried said. "We listened to the message sent by the selection committee. They were saying that teams from the power conferences can't just schedule 10-12 games to pad their record. We did what the committee asked us to do."
That Tide team was 21-10 overall, 8-8 in the SEC. Plus, they owned a home win over a strong Ohio State team. On the other hand that year Georgia finished only 16-13. But based on the Bulldogs' tougher out-of-conference schedule (Georgia played several national powers--losing to them all) Alabama was left out of the Tournament.
At the time Gottfried was angry, but his several phone calls revealed a consistent theme. "I talked to the head of the selection committee, and he communicated to me very clearly the importance of scheduling," Gottfried said. "He emphasized the fact that teams have a choice to play (tough opponents) and should be rewarded for it.
"This year we played one of the best (out-of-conference) schedules in America. And we beat those teams. I'm just hoping (the selection committee) stays consistent."
Interestingly, the recent decision by Georgia officials to suspend their head coach and withdraw from post-season competition should work in Bama's favor. Selection committee members would vehemently deny it, but in practice quotas are commonly applied to an individual conference. Despite the fact that eight SEC squads (including Georgia) clearly deserved bids, past history indicates even seven was an outside number.
The point can be argued both ways, but most experts rank Alabama and Auburn as the seventh- and eighth-best SEC schools this season respectively. Georgia was either third or fourth, behind Kentucky, Florida and possibly Mississippi State. So the Bulldogs' current scandal will almost certainly smooth the road for the Tide.
Gottfried made a strong case for the SEC. "We obviously have eight (seven, minus Georgia) teams qualified to play," he said. "Conferences like the PAC-10 have five of their 10 teams with RPIs more than 150. The SEC has zero teams above 100 (Vanderbilt is exactly 100). If there was ever a year the SEC deserved 7-8 teams in the tournament, this is the year."
Before Georgia's withdrawal, conventional wisdom held that the Tide had to win its first round game in the SEC tournament or face disappointment next Sunday. "We're like any team," Gottfried said. "Winning helps. We need to take that mindset with us to New Orleans. The winner of the conference tournament earns the automatic bid. We've got to think that way."
After shuffling its conference seedings, the SEC tournament now matches Alabama and Vanderbilt in the first round. Its 69-70 January loss in Nashville to a very average Commodore squad is one game the Tide would clearly like to have back. "Obviously Vanderbilt poses some problems for us," Gottfried said Monday afternoon. "But I think our players will welcome the opportunity to play them again."
With a win over Vanderbilt in this weekend's SEC tournament, the Tide will probably guarantee its inclusion on the NCAA's tourney dance card (which is good, because Kentucky looms as Bama's second round opponent).
Two years ago the Tide players gathered around the television to watch the selection show were stunned by their exclusion. And frankly, Gottfried doesn't even want to think about a repeat performance. "I hope that wouldn't happen again to our players. That would be a tough thing."