Tide turning at right time

Originally Published: February 24, 2004
By Pat Forde | Special to ESPN.com

Alabama has done this dance before.

The Big Dance dance. The are-we-in-or-are-we-out two-step. The bubble boogie.

Put on your John Travolta white leisure suit, Mark Gottfried, and prepare for Late February Fever. Mr. Bubble at least has some practice at this shuffle.

For the third time in the last four seasons, the Crimson Tide enters the homestretch awash in NCAA Tournament uncertainty. Once again, Team Cliffhanger is in need of victories -- just to have the right to sweat out Selection Sunday.

In 2001 the bubble burst, sending Alabama to the NIT despite a 21-10 record at the time and an 8-8 mark in the Southeastern Conference. 'Bama was steamed.

In '02 the Tide was a lock, winning the SEC regular-season championship.

Last year the Tide squeaked in as a No. 10 seed, despite losing 9 of their last 14 games and having a losing SEC record. Several NIT teams were steamed.

This year? Alabama looked like it was headed for the NIT at best -- spring football at worst -- until last Saturday. That's when it recorded arguably the most impressive SEC victory of the year, shocking No. 4-ranked, 21-1 Mississippi State in Starkville.

"It was pretty impressive," said Auburn coach Cliff Ellis, prior to his Tigers' 72-71 loss Tuesday night. "What Alabama did in Starkville, it says a lot about their team."

Suddenly, the Tide had the one thing missing from its NCAA résumé: a victory on a big-time opponent's home floor. A five-game losing streak from late January into early February, when solid junior shooting guard Ernest Shelton missed time with a sprained knee, seems like ancient history. Now, at 14-10 against what the RPI says is the toughest schedule in America to date, this is a team mounting a convincing argument for a place in the field of 65.

Kennedy Winston
Alabama's Kennedy Winston is on the All-Rolls Royce fourth team after averaging 17.1 ppg in 2003.

Not that Gottfried is too starry-eyed about it. His line all season: "We're not very good." He won't deviate from it now.

This is a program that has weathered the loss of three major talents who left early for the NBA in recent years: Gerald Wallace, Rod Grizzard and, last year, Mo Williams. Combine the departure of Williams with the graduation of four-year guys like Erwin Dudley, Kenny Walker and Terrence Meade, and this had all the makings of a grimly difficult rebuilding year.

Now it could unexpectedly blossom into an NCAA Tournament year -- even if the coach is avoiding fixating on the topic with his players.

"We addressed it (Alabama's NCAA viability) a couple of weeks ago, after we lost a couple games," Gottfried said. "I didn't want our guys to feel they were out of the hunt.

"But right now we just need to get better and play hard. The important thing for us is, how do we improve today?"

They improved all right Tuesday night, as the Tide won consecutive road games for just the third time in six years under Gottfried -- and won for the first time in Auburn since 1996. Alabama's next two games are against Ole Miss and Arkansas -- two teams with combined SEC records of 8-17. Take care of business in those games and the Tide gets a second shot at Mississippi State (March 6) to close the regular season -- and perhaps lock up an NCAA bid.

If Alabama makes the field, it will have a hard-earned 2001 scheduling lesson to thank for it.

That year the Tide started out 12-1, but the competition was a joke: Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Grambling, North Texas, Alabama State and Southeastern Louisiana, just to name a few of the nonconference cadavers. Even the one early-season game Gottfried scheduled against a big name turned out to be a farce: Alabama beat a Louisville team on its way to 19 losses by 29 points.

Everyone schedules cupcakes, but this was different. 'Bama scheduled too many of them, and loaded up on the dregs of D-I -- schools that ranked in the 300s in the RPI.

"We probably didn't pay attention as closely to the RPI as we should have," Gottfried said.

Critics killed the schedule, and then the committee delivered the harshest slap of all: a one-way ticket to the NIT. The suits made a statement at 'Bama's expense.

"Being the national poster child for scheduling, it hurts your ego," Gottfried said. "Everyone was kind of going at us, going at our schedule."

Since then Alabama has not only scheduled more big names, but also more respectable mid-majors. That was a big reason why the Tide made the field last year, and it's why 'Bama has the toughest schedule in the country to date, plus a corresponding No. 23 ranking in ESPN.com's Daily InsideRPI.

"We have played a great schedule, we do have quality wins, we've done what we had to do," Gottfried said. "No we have to finish up well in the conference."

The key to that could well be the guy who keyed the upset in Starkville, Kennedy Winston. The lavisly talented sophomore forward was panned in this space last week for lollygagging against Kentucky, but he stepped up with a brilliant, 31-point, 11-rebound game against Mississippi State. Winston followed those numbers up with 27 points and seven rebounds.

"It was one of those games where we had no answer for him," State coach Rick Stansbury said of Winston's performance against his Bulldogs. "That day, he was clearly the best player in the league.

"He's kind of a rhythm guy: If he doesn't make shots or things don't go his way, he can kind of disappear. But when he gets on a roll, that basket gets as big as a barrell."

Entering Tuesday, Winston was averaging 36.1 minutes and 18.4 points per game in league play, shooting a smoking 48 percent from 3-point range. Shelton is chipping in 13.1 points, sophomore power forward Chuck Davis has stepped forward to average 10.3 points and a team-high 6.1 rebounds, and gritty senior Antoine Pettway leads the team in assists and steals.

"When you look at it," Gottfried said, "we're not going to out-talent anybody."

Perhaps not. But Alabama has done enough to get itself back to a familiar place: the late-February bubble watch.

DePaul delayed, perhaps derailed

DePaul's bid for its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2000 -- and just its second since 1992 -- was gaining steam. Then the Blue Demons lost at home to Saint Louis Saturday, surrendering 50 second-half points to a team averaging just 60.3 points per game in conference play.

"I thought for the first time in three or four weeks that we didn't play with the kind of energy as we have defensively, and that really hurt us," coach Dave Leitao said. "For them to score 50 points in a half is really disappointing."

That loss ended DePaul's five-game winning streak, which had propelled it into the thick of the wide-open Conference USA race. Now the Blue Demons are 15-8 overall, 8-4 in league play, and their RPI has slipped to 59 as of Tuesday.

DePaul can argue that its record was compromised by center Andre Brown missing nine games with a knee injury, but for now an at-large bid looks like a long shot. The Blue Demons get two more shots at big-name teams, visiting Louisville on Wednesday and hosting Cincinnati (March 4), but the only realistic path to the tournament now is through the C-USA tournament in Cincinnati.

Without DePaul in the mix, C-USA has five strong NCAA Tournament candidates, based on the RPI: Louisville is No. 18, Memphis No. 23, UAB No. 27, Cincinnati No. 28 and Charlotte No. 32.

Games to Watch
LSU at Mississippi State, Wednesday
If Jaime Lloreda can't play because of foot injuries, this becomes Mission Impossible for the Tigers.
Cincinnati at Charlotte, Saturday
The 49ers have excelled against top-level competition, beating three teams ranked in the top 10 when they met -- and the Bearcats were one of them. A win here could virtually lock up an NCAA bid for Bobby Lutz's team.
Memphis at Louisville, Saturday
Two programs going in opposite directions right now. Tigers won the first meeting -- but Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean didn't play. They'll both be in the lineup this time.
Georgia at South Carolina, Saturday
Should be a defensive war. Bulldogs are making their own late-season NCAA Tournament bid, having won three straight.
Kentucky at LSU, Sunday
This approximately marks the 10-year anniversary of the Mardi Gras Miracle, when the Wildcats came from 31 points down in the second half to win in Baton Rouge.
Around the South

  • Vanderbilt (17-6, 6-6) has bolstered its NCAA résumé the past three weeks with wins over Kentucky, Georgia and LSU at home and Alabama on the road. And one of the biggest factors during that stretch has been the elevated play of 7-foot-1 David Przybyszewski.

    He used to simply be hard to pronounce. Now he's hard to defend.

    Przybyszewski has averaged 13.3 points and 5.3 rebounds over the last six games, scoring in double figures in each. The junior from Poland is also, believe it or not, the team's best perimeter shooter. In this six-game stretch he's made 16 of 27 three-point shots, capped off by a five-for-five strafing of LSU Saturday.

  • LSU coach John Brady has been known to find the cloud in every silver lining, but this week he doesn't have to look far. This week, he's got a legitimate reason to feel unlucky.

    His team is on a two-game losing streak. His best player, powerful forward-center Jaime Lloreda, is questionable for the game at Mississippi State with a bruised heel and other foot maladies. And for the second time all season, LSU has the pleasure of playing State when the Bulldogs are coming off a loss -- their only two losses of the season.

    "That doesn't help us out," Brady noted -- especially with Lawrence Roberts lurking inside for State.

  • Overachieving South Carolina finally threw in a clunker, fading at the end to lose at Arkansas by 16 Saturday, and coach Dave Odom was not pleased.

    "We've got to execute better than we did at Arkansas," Odom said. "... All said and done, we played poorly."

    The Gamecocks need to regroup quickly for a trip to Florida on Wednesday. Look to see whether junior Carlos Powell, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, is back in the starting lineup in Gainesville. He came off the bench the last two games, playing just 16 minutes against Vanderbilt and 23 at Arkansas, scoring single digits in each for the first time all season. Odom said he has been displeased with Powell's defensive effort.

    "It was an opportunity to send a message to him," Odom said.

  • Last year this space nominated Alabama as the Worst Team Ever To Be Ranked No. 1. This year there might be another contender for the honor, as Florida nose dives in SEC play. (It should be noted that Alabama was No. 1 later in the year than the Gators, who reached that spot in early December.)

    Florida is a wobbly 6-6 in league play, having lost four of its last six. Now it must go without first team All-Selfish player Christian Drejer, who left the team last week to turn pro in Spain.

    "Christian Drejer's timing, I think, is what was wrong," coach Billy Donovan said. "I don't think anybody would have a problem with Christian Drejer leaving the University of Florida at the end of the season."

    The main thing the Gators must compensate for is Drejer's ball-handling, passing and ability to break down defenses off the dribble. Drejer doubled as Florida's backup point guard, which means freshman Ryan Appleby will be called upon more to relieve Anthony Roberson.

  • Kentucky got leading scorer Gerald Fitch back last week and won two games. Fitch started slowly coming off the bench against Arkansas, then scored 18 points at Auburn after missing three games with a sprained index finger on his shooting hand. The rock-steady Wildcats bounced back after losing the previous week to Georgia, and have not lost consecutive games since Jan. 5 and Jan. 9, 2002.

  • The same cannot be said for Kentucky's in-state rival, Louisville. The Cardinals continue to plummet in the rankings, the RPI and the Conference USA standings, having lost five of their last six games.

    Injuries have played a major factor, with Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean both missing significant time. So has the schedule, which back-loaded the Cards with road games. But Louisville's level of play -- from offensive pace to defensive pressure to shooting stroke -- has undeniably dwindled.

    Still, the Cards came out of their overtime loss at Cincinnati with some optimism. Garcia played brilliantly for the first time since late January, and it took a clutch last-second jumper from Field Williams to send the game into overtime. If power forward Luke Whitehead returns from what some people think is a dubious sprained ankle -- Rick Pitino has been unhappy with Whitehead for a while, and some suspect he sat him against the Bearcats for more than just health reasons -- Louisville has a chance to right itself this week. Home games against DePaul and Memphis should provide insight into which Louisville team we'll see in the postseason.

  • Thumbs up to Cincinnati for the coolness of Field Williams' jersey. In a move that hearkens back to the Phi Slama Jama days, when Akeem Olajuwon and Rob Williams had only their first names on the backs of their jerseys, Williams' No. 2 says only "Field" on the back. The senior guard asked for it when transfer Nick Williams arrived, instead of going with "F. Williams."

    Thumbs sideways to Cincinnati for its other fashion statement: mix-and-match shoes. The Bearcats apparently liked the two-tone look Tracy McGrady wore at the NBA All-Star game, because they each came out in one black shoe and one white one against Louisville Saturday. We like the cheekiness of it, but the aesthetics are iffy.

    Thumbs down to Cincinnati for recruiting human headache Robert Whaley to begin with. The junior-college All-American center was supposed to be the star of this year's Cincy recruiting class, but he left the team Monday night for personal reasons. Whaley, who has a history of problems, hasn't panned out. And the last thing Bob Huggins needed was another reason for the nation to question the character of his recruits.

  • How vital are guards Reggie Bryant and Josh Fisher to Saint Louis' deliberate offense? They combine to provide 45 percent of the Billikens' scoring and 45 percent of their assists, and have made nearly 58 percent of their 3-pointers.

  • Of the four teams bunched at the top in C-USA, Charlotte and UAB would seem to have the easiest schedules over the final four games. Leader Memphis (10-2) must travel to Louisville and Cincinnati, in addition to home games against Southern Mississippi and Texas Christian. The Bearcats (9-3) will be home for Saint Louis, at Charlotte, at DePaul and home for Memphis. The 49ers (9-3) are at TCU, home against Cincinnati, at Houston and home against Tulane. UAB (9-3) is at Tulane, home against Marquette, at South Florida and home against TCU. Whichever team can hold serve at home and steal at least one on the road could be your eventual champion.

  • The Atlantic Sun regular-season race is coming down to the wire, with Troy State (16-2) holding a slim lead over Central Florida (15-3) and Belmont (14-4). Keep an eye on this tournament, which could produce an NCAA Tournament giant killer. ESPN's Daily RPI ranks three teams in the top 83: Troy State at No. 71, Belmont at 82 and UCF at 83.

    Quote to note

    "I'm back!"
    -- Louisville's Francisco Garcia, screaming to teammate Taquan Dean during his 27-point, seven-assist game at Cincinnati -- by far his best performance since suffering two ankle sprains in the last month. Now Garcia needs his teammates to join him in returning to January form.

    Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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