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Crimson Tide's Past Colors Its Present

Alabama will make school history if it advances past the Sweet 16

March 25, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

Mark Gottfried stood by the Alabama bus that waited outside Seattle's Key- Arena on Saturday, after his team had upset top-ranked Stanford, and had to laugh.

Someone somewhere probably already was saying he should have been the next UCLA coach.

"Flavor of the month," he said. "Whoever happens to win, you become the flavor of the month."

Gottfried, Lorenzo Romar and Steve Lavin were on Jim Harrick's staff when UCLA won the 1995 national championship.

Two of them made the NCAA tournament this season -- Romar's Washington team lost in the first round, and Gottfried's Alabama team is in the Sweet 16. Lavin spent the season working in television after five Sweet 16 appearances in seven tumultuous seasons at UCLA.

Gottfried was the first to leave, taking a job at Murray State in 1995. After three seasons and two NCAA tournament appearances, he was named coach at his alma mater in 1998.

Don't count on his ever returning to UCLA.

"I'm where I need to be," said Gottfried, 40.

He and his wife, Elizabeth, have five children, and both of their families live in the state.

"I've had a great run at Alabama and, obviously, my wife and I both went to school there," Gottfried said.

"I had a great experience at UCLA. We won a national championship. You can't get any better than that. But they've got a great coach. I think Ben [Howland] is going to be fabulous there. He just needs some time to get it going."

Alabama has been this far before. The Crimson Tide has made the Sweet 16 seven times.

But even with a roll of players that includes Latrell Sprewell, Robert Horry and Antonio McDyess, the Crimson Tide has never really made an impact in basketball -- certainly nothing like football, which drew 35,000 for the spring game the day the basketball team upset the Cardinal in Seattle.

"One thing it's important to remember, Alabama has never advanced past the Sweet 16," Gottfried said. "In the history of our program.

"Obviously, for us, that would be a huge step. We've never done it. I played in three myself as a player [in 1985, '86 and '87], but Alabama has never advanced past it.

"You've got a group of guys, again, I truly believe, they think they're going to advance."

To go any further, they'll have to beat defending national champion Syracuse today in the semifinals of the Phoenix Regional.

Even before this season, Gottfried already had done well in Tuscaloosa, earning Southeastern Conference coach-of-the-year honors in 2002 with a 27-8 team that won the SEC regular-season title and made the NCAA tournament.

Last season, briefly, Alabama was ranked first in the nation for the first time in the school's history, but lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year.

This team wasn't supposed to do much after losing four starters, including Erwin Dudley and Mo Williams, a sophomore point guard who turned pro early.

The Crimson Tide managed to go 17-12 -- which didn't even sound like a lock for an NCAA bid until you considered that Alabama played the toughest schedule in the nation. That was largely a result of Gottfried's determination to raise Alabama's RPI after his 2000-01 team won 20 games but failed to make the NCAA field.

Now he has his first Sweet 16 team.

Sophomore forward Kennedy Winston and junior guard Earnest Shelton have become stars. Senior Antoine Pettway, a former walk-on, is the starting point guard, and has proved a winner time and again.

Pettway, in fact, made the winning shot with five seconds left against Southern Illinois in the first round.

"In the beginning of the season, everyone was counting us out, saying that they thought that we weren't going to make the tournament and that we were going to finish last on the West side of the SEC," Pettway said.

"We never felt that way.... We always had confidence in our ability."

Tom Asbury, the former Pepperdine and Kansas State coach in his first season as an assistant to Gottfried, credits him for some of the players' determination.

"He really allows our kids to play with confidence," said Asbury, who met Gottfried when Gottfried joined Harrick's staff in 1988.

"He allows them to believe in themselves because he believes what he says. He believed we can beat [Stanford], and I think that really helped."

The players were hardly intimidated by top-ranked and top-seeded Stanford, even though Alabama starts a freshman and two sophomores.

"We aren't worried about being starry-eyed," Pettway said. "We have played teams this season like Mississippi State that are equal to the caliber of Stanford."

Down 13 in the second half, Alabama didn't fold.

"It was slipping away a little bit, but we have been in situations where we came back and won," Gottfried said.

It has been a season of comebacks and last-minute shots.

Against Arkansas, Alabama trailed by 22 and came back to win in overtime.

And three of the team's 12 losses were in overtime.

Gottfried's troops might be young, but they are tested.

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