Turn of the Tide
After loss to Kentucky, Alabama is headed for the NIT
Posted: Thursday March 8, 2007 5:32PM; Updated: Thursday March 8, 2007 5:55PM
ATLANTA -- They came within one basket of the Sweet 16 last year, returned four starters, and were ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation in December. And now the Alabama Crimson Tide will wait for a call from the NIT.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen," said Alabama forward Richard Hendrix.
This was not how the 2006-07 season was supposed to play out for Mark Gottfried and the Tide. After finishing last year with a last-second loss to UCLA in the NCAA tournament, they were ranked No. 11 in the preseason and were a darkhorse Final Four candidate. But after a 79-67 loss to Kentucky in the first round of the SEC tournament on Thursday, the only Final Four that Alabama can hope for will take place in Madison Square Garden, not the Georgia Dome.
Alabama sits at 20-11, but a 7-10 SEC record and a poor finish to the regular season has put the Tide out of the NCAA tournament picture.
"Nobody could have paid me any kind of money to tell me we'd be in this situation," said point guard Ronald Steele. "But we are."
Steele, a talented junior, battled ankle and knee injuries all season, and February was particularly tough for him. He missed the final two regular-season games, and played just 12 minutes against Kentucky before Gottfried had seen enough.
"We certainly wanted him to try," Gottfried said. "He tried the best he could. It just got to a point where he said, 'I can't cut, I can't move, and it hurts' and that was it."
Steele gave Alabama a lift in the first half coming off the bench, and the Tide built a 21-11 lead, but Kentucky quickly erased that with Randolph Morris attacking from the inside for 17 points and Ramel Bradley, Joe Crawford and Bobby Perry hitting threes from the outside. The Wildcats built a 35-27 halftime lead, and without Steele in the second half, a comeback was not in Alabama's arsenal.
Steele wasn't the only obstacle Alabama faced on its descent from national title contender to NIT castoff. Jermareo Davidson, the Tide's second-best player, suffered multiple off-court tragedies as well as some physical injuries of his own.
"The season started to slip when Ronald Steele hurt his knee," said guard Brandon Hollinger. "Jermareo had some problems, and it all went down hill from there. When we had teammates breaking down, the season started going down from there."
Steele and Davidson were preseason first-team All-SEC picks, and Steele was named a preseason AP first-team All-America, so the Tide were a logical pick behind Final Four participant LSU in the SEC West. Despite the early problems of its stars, Alabama put together a 13-1 non-conference record with wins against Iowa, Xavier, N.C. State and Oklahoma.
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