This was a rebuilding year for Coach Mark Gottfried's Crimson Tide. Graduation was tough on Bama after last season. The Tide lost three seniors who had been four-year starters, members of Gottfried's first recruiting class after he took over the program at his alma mater six years ago. That group included the 2002 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, Erwin Dudley. Additionally, this year's Crimson Tide was blind-sided when Mo Williams, the 2002 SEC Freshman of the Year, elected to enter the NBA draft after last season. It was the third straight year Alabama lost an underclassman to the lure of the NBA.
In pre-season predictions, Alabama was expected to finish at or near the bottom in the SEC. And while Bama's record of 18-12 is nothing to scare the likes of Stanford, the Crimson Tide put those numbers up while playing what was judged by many to be the nation's most difficult schedule.
That schedule, which included some quality wins over the likes of Wisconsin, Mississippi State, and Oregon, also included some close losses to the likes of Pitt, Providence, Kentucky, and an overtime heart-breaker to Mississippi State in the final regular season game of the year.
Midway through the season Alabama lost junior wing guard Earnest Shelton and suffered a five-game losing streak, the longest in Gottfried's tenure at Bama. When the Tide lost to Vanderbilt on February 18, most thought any chance of NCAA Tournament play was over. But Alabama won five of its final six regular season games, three of them on the road, and finished tied for second in the SEC Western Division. Bama swamped Tennessee, 84-49, in the first round of the SEC Tournament before being eliminated by Florida in overtime–Bama's third overtime game in the last four games before reaching Seattle.
The return of Shelton, a 6-3 junior from Memphis who was Bama's leading scorer before being injured and who had a team-high 18 points in the Tide's win over SIU Thursday, was a big part of Alabama success. He averaged 15.8 points per game.
But the main man has been sophomore Kennedy Winston, 6-6, who earned All-SEC on the strength of his offensive play. He was named SEC Player of the Week in back-to-back weeks this season and a record-tying three times during the year.
Winston, a native of Mobile, Alabama, originally signed with Cal, but when his mother became ill he was granted a release in order to stay closer to home and signed with Alabama. He averaged 16.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game this year.
Inside, the Tide has players who had almost no experience prior to the start of this season. Sophomore Chuck Davis, 6-7, 230, from Selma, saw only spot action as a true freshman last year. This year he averaged 10.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. True freshman Jermareo Davidson, 6-10, 200, holds the other inside position. The Atlanta native was a unanimous choice for the All-SEC Freshman team as he averaged 5.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game and blocked a team-high 37 shots.
But the heart of the team is 6-0 senior point guard Antoine Pettway, a former walk-on from tiny Camden, Alabama. Pettway scored the winning basket to beat Florida at the end of the 2002 season as Alabama won the SEC Championship. He has had a handful of game-winning shots in his career, the most recent on Thursday in Alabama's 65-64 win over Southern Illinois. Pettway led the SEC in assists-turnovers ratio (96 assists, 43 turnovers) and averaged 9.4 points per game.
Alabama will play seven to nine players ordinarily. Emmett Thomas (8.9 ppg) and Evan Brock (3.1 ppg) were the only subs against SIU. However, Alabama ordinarily plays back-up point guard Demetrius Smith. Smith turned an ankle in practice before the SIU game and is listed as doubtful for Saturday. Senior Reggie Rambo, 6-7, 225, is an inside substitute against physical teams.
Alabama has been a team that has had great success with its outside shooting. Shelton, Winston, Pettway, and Thomas all regularly shooting the three-pointer. Alabama went into the NCAA Tournament having made 207 of 540 treys.
Although Alabama prefers to play man-to-man defense, the Tide has had success this year with a 2-3 zone.
Most outside the South think of Alabama as a football school, but the Crimson Tide is second only to Kentucky in SEC basketball success. This is Alabama's third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament and 17th in history.
When Gottfried played for Alabama in 1985-87, Alabama made three consecutive trips to the Sweet 16. Gottfried was a member of Jim Harrick's UCLA staff when the Bruins won the 1995 NCAA Championship in Seattle. Gottfried is the son of Joe Gottfried, director of athletics at the University of South Alabama, and the nephew of ESPN football analyst Mike Gottfried.