Alabama’s basketball team appears likely to enjoy only a brief stay at No. 1 after rising to the top of the rankings for the second time in program history.
These Crimson Tide are hoping that’s where the similarities end with the only other Alabama team to top the rankings, their predecessors from 2002-03, who struggled after rising to No. 1.
Nate Oats and the Tide fell to No. 10 Tennessee 68-59 on Wednesday night two days after reaching the top spot.
Oats knew the billing would be ”a maturity test” for a team led by freshmen Brandon Miller, Noah Clowney and Jaden Bradley and transfer Mark Sears.
”No. 1 has nothing to do with any of the goals that we set at the beginning of the year, other than it’s made the bull’s eye a lot bigger on our back,” Oats said on Tuesday. ”We’ve got to be playing like the No. 1 team in the country a week from now, six weeks, seven weeks from now (in the NCAA Tournament). That’s the goal.”
Much of his roster hadn’t been born the last time a Tide hoops team was confronted with this challenge. And Oats himself was still a decade away from leading Romulus High School in Michigan to its first state title in 27 years.
Oats didn’t need to look back to find a cautionary tale for his team. The Tide became the eighth No. 1 team to lose this season, tying 1993-94 for the most in a regular season in records dating back to 1948-49.
But a history lesson would provide another such tale. Alabama won its first nine games in 2002-03, including wins over then-No. 3 Oklahoma and Ohio State to rise to the top of the rankings for the first time in program history two days before Christmas. The Tide beat Morehead State the day of that first No. 1 ranking, but then fell 51-49 at Utah a week later.
Mark Gottfried’s team wound up going 17-12 and barely making the NCAA Tournament before losing in the first round. Current Alabama assistant coach Antoine Pettway and eventual NBA player Mo Williams were sharing the backcourt and Erwin Dudley was the reigning SEC player of the year for the defending league champions. Highly touted freshman Kennedy Winston joined in midseason.
”People say it’s hard to get there and harder to stay there,” said Philip Pearson, who was an assistant for the Tide and is now at UAB. ”I think there’s a lot of truth in that. When you’re No. 1, man, you’ve got a mark on your chest that people are shooting for. There ain’t no doubt about it.”
Pearson said it’s ”a little bit of a double-edged sword” for teams who aren’t used to such a lofty position, bringing national attention, ratcheting up fan interest and potentially helping with recruiting.
”But there is the other piece: That, hey, are our players really experienced enough, old enough, mature enough to really handle this in the way that they need to?” he said.
Dudley said he didn’t see a change in the locker room or chemistry on that 2002-03 team after the No. 1 ranking. He did see opponents raise their play. If he had a chance to speak to the current Tide players, Dudley knows what his message would be: Keep doing what you’ve been doing, only better.
”Everybody wants to take down Goliath. It’s just the nature of the beast,” said Dudley, who lives in Tuscaloosa after a pro career overseas. ”It’s how it is. I would tell them that whatever you did to be No. 1, you have to do it times 10, because you’re going to have everybody coming after you.”
Oats has praised the poise and maturity of his team, including Miller, a potential NBA draft lottery pick. Alabama also has veteran pieces like Sears, point guard Jahvon Quinerly and forward Noah Gurley.
”This is a maturity test,” Oats said Tuesday. ”How hard are we going to play and practice?”
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