Alabama begins conference play with a record of 11-2 and a No. 18 ranking in the ESPN / USA Today poll (19 in AP). The Crimson Tide's only setbacks have come on the road, vs. Washington (79-76 in the championship game of the Great Alaska Shootout), and Wisconsin (76-62 in Madison). Alabama has managed some good wins, probably the best one being a 102-101 overtime victory at Charlotte. They have also defeated Temple (75-71), East Tennessee (114-77), Minnesota (78-72), and most recently New Orleans (68-57).
Mark Gottfried, now in his seventh year as head coach, has a career record of 130-76. As a player, he once sank eight 3-pointers in a game vs. Vanderbilt. He was an assistant coach at UCLA, and head coach at Murray State for two seasons, before returning to his alma mater in 1998.
The Tide was the only SEC team to reach the Elite Eight last season, with NCAA tournament wins over Southern Illinois, Stanford, and Syracuse before being eliminated by Connecticut. Nonetheless, in its only meeting of the season with Vanderbilt, the Commodores prevailed 70-67 in Tuscaloosa. Alabama's 2003-04 season record was 20-13, 8-8 in conference play.
Alabama's new point guard is 6-2 freshman Ronald Steele, who was heavily recruited by Vanderbilt. He has proved to be a remarkably reliable ballhandler and playmaker, with 5.2 assists per game, and only 2.2 turnovers, much better than the 2:1 ratio that is considered to be the mark of efficiency for point guards. He is playing over 34 minutes per game, scoring 9.5 ppg, making 39% of his three-point tries and 82.1% of his free throws. Of course some of Alabama's early opponents have not been SEC-caliber (e.g. Alaska-Anchorage, Western Carolina, and Alabama State), so it remains to be seen if Steele can maintain his productivity against stronger competition.
His running mate at shooting guard, 6-3 Earnest Shelton, is the team's leading scorer (17.3 ppg). The only senior on the team who plays much, Shelton has added some variety to his offensive reportoire this season with drives to the basket, and has been going to the free-throw line often. The outside shot has always been Shelton's stock-in-trade, and he is connecting on 40.4% of his efforts. He makes 78.5% of his free throws, and is averaging five free tosses per game.
The team's acknowledged star is 6-6 junior Kennedy Winston (left). Winston is barely behind Shelton in the scoring (17.0 ppg), and is known more for taking it to the basket than for making the outside shot. However, he is shooting 43.4% from beyond the three-point arc. Considered a bit selfish in his freshman year, he has become a genuine team player. His rebounding average (6.5 per game) is impressive.
The third member of Alabama's scoring triumvirate may just be their best player. He is 6-7 junior Chuck Davis, a 230-pounder who is the second leading rebounder (7.6 per game) and an effective offensive threat (16.1 ppg). Davis is an inside scorer who gets to the free throw line often and makes 83% of his attempts there. He averages over two blocks per game and is the complete package.
Rounding out the starting lineup is 6-10 sophomore Jermareo Davidson. He has been scoring much more this season (8.8 ppg) than last and leads the team with 8.1 rebounds per game. He is another shot-blocker and, with Davis, gives Alabama a strong inside defensive game. He is playing about 24 minutes per game, considerably less than the other three starters, all of whom average well over 30 minutes each outing.
Alabama has four reserves who play 10 to 12 minutes per game. One of them, 6-5 freshman Justin Jonus (3.4 ppg), is a walk-on who is an outstanding outside shooter (40% success on threes). He seems certain to be placed on scholarship after this season. 6-7 freshman Jean Felix, who comes from Congo, helps out in the front line and is scoring 4.5 ppg. 6-3 freshman Albert Weber (3.3 ppg) backs up Steele at the point. 6-8 junior Evan Brock (2.6 ppg) spells Davidson underneath.
6-11 Shawn Taylor and 6-9 Akini Atkins, both redshirt freshmen, have seen very little activity. 6-5 senior Lucky Williams has never played much. 6-4 freshman Glenn Miles has not been in a single game and presumably is being red-shirted.
Basically, Alabama has a nine-man rotation, but four of the starters get minimal relief. There is no doubt that the Tide players can put up a lot of points, but team defense may not be so efficient. They have good experience (even with a freshman point guard), average height, and good quickness and jumping ability.
Obviously this is a very important game for Vanderbilt, one that could be pivotal to conference success. It could be a real shootout, with both teams putting up 80 or more points. Given the homecourt advantage, Vanderbilt is selected here to win a close one, in the range of three to seven points.