It’s been six years. Six long years since that feeling of hope roared across the state of Alabama for fans of the Crimson Tide. Six years since a sport other than football and gymnastics had a chance to be a part of the final chase for a national title. March Madness. It’s finally here, and Alabama is finally a part of arguably the greatest spectacle in all of basketball. And, well, it was well worth the wait.
In 2006 the Crimson Tide made the NCAA Tournament for its fifth consecutive season. The Tide finished the season 18-13, and had a largely unimpressive array of losses. Memphis, Notre Dame at home, Temple, NC State at home, and Oklahoma were Alabama’s non-conference losses. The Tide entered SEC play at 7-5 overall. It was hard to pinpoint an impressive victory during the Tide’s non-conference portion of the schedule, but when SEC play started things began to change.
Alabama knocked off Auburn on the road, and three days later traveled to Rupp Arena to take on the Kentucky Wildcats. Let me rephrase that — the #1 Kentucky Wildcats. We all know how hard it is to win in Rupp Arena. It isn’t an easy feat, and on January 14th, 2006, it proved to quite the tall task for Mark Gottfried’s Crimson Tide squad. A tall task, sure, but a task that Jermareo Davidson and the rest of the Alabama team were ready to take. Davidson finished the game with 28 points and 8 rebounds, and at the end of that Saturday matinee performance the Crimson Tide rose victorious, and Mark Gottfried’s team left Rupp Arena with a victory over the top-ranked team in the land.
Later that season, the Tide had a chance to take on another ranked team — this time at home. The Vanderbilt Commodores came to Coleman Coliseum as the 20th ranked team in America, and left with another loss under their belt. Alabama knocked off Vanderbilt 77-74 behind 22 points from Ronald Steele, and 12 rebounds from Richard Hendrix. Vanderbilt’s Shan Foster exploded for 30 points, but the Crimson Tide’s final effort was a enough to give Alabama the victory.
That win propelled Alabama. The team lost five of its six SEC games on the road, and most of them were not very close. However, when Alabama played at home the story was completely different, and the Tide had yet another opportunity to beat a ranked team on February 26th when the 25th-ranked Florida Gators traveled to Tuscaloosa. Ronald Steele scored 19 points, and Richard Hendrix padded his stats with 17 rebounds. Yes, nine of those rebounds were offensive rebounds. Yes, Richard Hendrix was notorious for stats like this, but that’s not the point. The point remains that Alabama beat Florida 82-77 and finished out the regular season strong before losing to Kentucky in the SEC tournament. Note this, though. Florida received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. They eventually won the national title.
Alabama made the NCAA tournament as a 10 seed, and the Tide was matched up against Marquette. A Marquette team with future NBA players Steve Novak and Wesley Matthews took on Alabama who played with a shortened rotation for numerous reason. Only seven players played for Alabama. Three of those players were freshmen — Alonzo Gee, Richard Hendrix, and Brandon Hollinger. And yet Alabama won 90-85 in San Diego, California. Jean Felix scored 31. Jermareo Davidson scored 21 and had 12 rebounds. Mark Gottfried’s team had done it. The dream was alive, and the hope was thriving for Alabama fans all across the nation.
The Tide moved on to the round-of-32 to take on Ben Howland’s UCLA team in San Diego. Alabama fought hard and valiantly behind Ronald Steele’s 21 points and a varying amount of contributions from other members of Alabama’s seven-man rotation. UCLA, led by future NBA players Arron Afflalo, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Jordan Farmer, Ryan Hollins, and Darren Collison, helped the Bruins outlast Alabama by a count of 62-59. The dream was over just as quickly as it had began, or at least it seemed that way. And Alabama wouldn’t be able to return to relive that dream for six years.
That brings us to now. The Alabama basketball program has a new coach. Mark Gottfried resigned in early 2009 after a few years of supremely talented teams that underachieved for much of each season. Anthony Grant was hired from VCU, and now, three years after he coached his first game for Alabama he is leading the Crimson Tide to its first NCAA Tournament since 2006. The Tide is set to play Creighton on Friday at 12:40 Central Time on TBS. This season hasn’t quite mirrored 2006 in terms of wins over top-ranked opponents, but the excitement surrounding the program is higher than it has been in years.
March Madness is a time where season-long dreams become reality. Fans, players, and coaches alike see their hard work come to fruition as they earn the right to play for a spot in the Final Four. Alabama fans haven’t felt this feeling in quite a while, and just last year Alabama was on the wrong end of “the bubble” and wound up in the NIT. It just wasn’t the same. So as Alabama takes the court in Greensboro on Friday, and the Tide begins a new chapter in Alabama’s history in March Madness — sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. It’s a privilege to even be here, and it’s been six long years since Alabama fans have dreamed like this.
By Josh Zavadil, Co-Host of The Morning Drive (Monday through Friday 8-10AM)