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Head coach Mark Gottfried and his Alabama Crimson Tide enter the SEC tournament having lost three of their last four games.
AP photo by Michael E. Palmer
Head coach Mark Gottfried and his Alabama Crimson Tide enter the SEC tournament having lost three of their last four games.

Tide tries to toughen up

By Josh Cooper · 340-2460

TUSCALOOSA — In his weekly news conference Monday, Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said his team needed to get tougher. Then he proceeded to run his squad ragged in practice.

Sprints, pushups, nothing was off-limits as the Crimson Tide went back to basics for one exhausting hour.

Alabama (20-10, 7-9 SEC) will find out how much it may or may not have helped Thursday when the Crimson Tide faces Kentucky (20-10, 9-7 SEC) at noon in the first round of the SEC tournament.

"Today was a gut-check day," said Alabama's Richard Hendrix, an Athens High graduate. "It was more trying to find out who had heart and where each person's heart was and who was willing to dig deep down inside and give whatever they had for this team. Coach realized what we needed, and that's what went down."

Preseason All-America point guard Ronald Steele was limited by knee and ankle injuries but took part in some drills and hopes to be ready for Thursday.

Alabama enters the league tournament with an uncertain future. Even though the Tide has reached the seemingly magical 20-win mark needed for an NCAA tournament bid, it has lost three of its last four, including a 91-67 blowout loss at Mississippi State on Sunday.

With its recent slide and unimpressive 7-9 SEC mark, Alabama's NCAA chances seem far from certain.

"They didn't have much of a case before (the Mississippi State game), but it certainly didn't help," said Jerry Palm who owns and operates the Web site "That whole (SEC Western) division is full of NIT quality teams. Short of winning the conference tournament, I don't feel good about their chances."

Gottfried and other SEC West coaches such as Mississippi State's Rick Stansbury have pointed out that the SEC has a high conference Ratings Percentage Index. According to the Web site, the league is ranked second in the nation.

But according to Palm, that indicates balance within the conference rather than overall excellence.

The SEC lacks many top tier teams.

For example, the Big 12 has Kansas and Texas A&M in the top 10 in both the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today polls with Texas in the top 15.

The Big East has Georgetown, Louisville and Pittsburgh in the top 15, and the ACC has North Carolina, Maryland and Duke in the top 25. The Big Ten has Ohio State and Wisconsin in the top five.

The only SEC teams ranked in the AP top 25 are No. 6 Florida and No. 22 Tennessee. According to the RPI, Alabama sits at No. 42.

"Here is the thing about conference rankings — they are more a reflection of a bottom of the league than the top of the league," Palm said. "It is just a reflection of the rankings of all the teams. So every major conference is going to have a couple of good teams and a middle that is OK and a bottom. Whoever has the worst bottom is going to be the worst-rated conference."

As for Alabama, after stumbling through most of the regular season, the Tide is looking at the SEC tourney as the beginning of its final exam.

As has been its motto all year, the team is keeping positive. Monday was the first day of its cram session. The lesson was toughness. Did the team learn? Just ask Hendrix.

"If we can find the attitude that is 'we' instead of 'me' in these next couple of days, I still believe that this team can win this tournament and do in the NCAA tournament what we have been hoping and wanting to do all year long," the 6-foot-8, 265-pound forward said. "It's just a matter of digging down within each person and giving all you got."

SEC tournament bracket

Thursday’s first round

n Alabama vs. Kentucky, noon (WZDX-54)

  • South Carolina vs. Arkansas, 2:15 p.m. (WZDX-54)

  • Georgia vs. Auburn, 6:30 p.m. (WAMY-TV)

  • LSU vs. Tennessee, 8:45 p.m. (WZDX-54, WAMY-TV)

    Friday’s second round

  • Mississippi State vs. Alabama/Kentucky winner, noon (WZDX-54)

  • Vanderbilt vs. Arkansas/
    South Carolina winner, 2:15 p.m. (WZDX-54)

  • Florida vs. Georgia/Auburn winner, 6:30 p.m. (WAMY-TV)

  • Ole Miss vs. LSU/
    Tennessee winner, 8:45 p.m. (WZDX-54, WAMY-TV)

    Saturday’s semifinals

    n First semifinal, noon (WZDX-54)

  • Second semifinal, 2:15 p.m. (WZDX-54)

    Sunday’s finals

  • Championship game, noon (WHNT-19)

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