Football taking back seat in Alabama as success in tournament shifts focus

Crimson Tide is set to face mighty UConn in Elite Eight

state had 3 NCAA entries

Ncaa Regional

Phoenix

March 27, 2004|By Fred Mitchell | Fred Mitchell,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

PHOENIX - The most popular college sports in Alabama traditionally have been football and ... well, spring football.

But the Alabama state universities have taken major strides to alter that one-dimensional perception by their extraordinary performances in this year's NCAA tournament.

Alabama has an Elite Eight date with basketball powerhouse Connecticut today at America West Arena.

The No. 8 seed Crimson Tide (20-12) managed to knock off No. 1-seeded Stanford last weekend in Seattle and defending national champion Syracuse on Thursday night to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time in school history.

"If you worry about what page in the paper we are on, compared to football, it could bother you," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "It is not something I allow to bother me. This is a great university and a great basketball program, even though people around the country may not know that.

"Playing in a game like [today's] might help our national perception. We can have a great basketball program and have a great football program at the same time. I don't think it has to be one or the other."

Three teams from the state of Alabama started the NCAA tournament. Alabama State was the 16th seed in the Atlanta Regional, falling to Duke in the first round. Alabama-Birmingham lost to Kansas, 100-74, last night in the St. Louis Regional.

The Crimson Tide has a more imposing challenge today than its school's perception. No. 2 seed Connecticut (30-6) swept its first three games in this tournament by margins of 17, 17 and 20 points.

"I think UConn is a tough matchup for a lot of teams," Gottfried said. "That's why they've had the year they've had."

The Huskies led the nation in field goal percentage defense.

"I think they are a tremendous defensive team for two reasons. No. 1, they do a great job of pressuring the basketball," Gottfried said. "And then obviously you have a guy in the middle a lot of people don't have anymore [6-foot-10 All-American center Emeka Okafor].

"You can make some mistakes on the perimeter and he can clean it up around the basket. If you are a team that tries to move the ball inside, now you have to deal with him around the basket."

UConn's Ben Gordon had 20 points, nine rebounds and five assists to help whip Vanderbilt, 73-53, Thursday night. Rashad Anderson had 15 points, and Okafor added 12 points and 11 boards for the Huskies.

"A team has to beat us. I don't want to lose," said UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who was not pleased with his team's 18 turnovers againt the Commodores.

Calhoun, who won a national title with the Huskies in 1999, does not want to fall into the trap of underestimating a hyperactive Alabama team that features Kennedy Winston, Earnest Shelton, Antoine Pettway and Chuck Davis.

"We are a small team; we are not real bulky. I think out of our starting five, I am the biggest guy on the floor," said Davis, a 6-7, 230-pound forward who scored 17 second-half points against Syracuse on Thursday night.

"Guys we go against are going to be stronger. We just have to fight a little harder. We have had to do that all season."

But Alabama's lack of bulk has been neutralized with rapid fire quickness.

"They have somewhat of DePaul's size, but quicker," said Calhoun, whose team trounced the Blue Demons last weekend. "Our goal is just to get by the 40 minutes [today] so we can keep on playing. We are catching a team certainly on a roll."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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