December 5, 2006

Tide prepares for first road test

With an undefeated 7-0 record and a No. 4 ranking in the AP poll, the 2006-07 season has been smooth sailing so far for Mark Gottfried and the Crimson Tide. This Thursday night, the waters may get a little rough as the Tide face their first true road test of the season at Notre Dame.

"This is going to be a fun game to play in," Gottfried said. "Notre Dame is obviously very good and has a lot of great tradition to their program. Our players are excited to play in this kind of marquee matchup and we know it's going to be a great test for our team."

The Fighting Irish are coming off a win against a ranked Maryland team. The game was played in Washington D.C., virtually home turf for Maryland making the win even more impressive for the Irish.

"Their win against Maryland was very impressive," Gottfried said. "It was basically a road game for Notre Dame and they were still able to go in a get a great win. They're very good shooters, they know how to play and I think they are a quicker team than a lot of people realize. I think this is an NCAA Tournament team we're playing on Thursday night, there's no question in my mind."

The Tide dropped to the Irish 78-75 last season and after viewing the film from last year's contest, Gottfried said he expects a much better performance from his team this year.

"Our transition defense in the first half of last year's game was absolutely pathetic," Gottfried said. "I'm trying to figure out who was coaching that game last year because I was embarrassed to watch it. They can shoot the ball so well that they can really make you pay if you aren't on your game."

Handling a tough road environment like the 11,000-seat Joyce Center is tough enough for veterans like Ronald Steele and Jermareo Davidson but for rest of the Tide's young roster it will be totally new challenge.

"We have a couple of players who have been on the road at this level and a whole bunch of players who have never been in a true road environment," Gottfried said. "It will be a new experience for those young guys but you want your veteran players to help make sure those young guys stay focused. To be a great basketball team, you've got to be able to win wherever you play, whether it's at home, on the road or down the street somewhere."

Steele and some of the older players have tried their best this week to mentally prepare their younger teammates for their first road experience but Steele says talking about it doesn't compare to experiencing it first hand.

"You can try to tell them about it but there's honestly not much you can do to prepare the young guys for this," Steele said. "I just have to be there as the older guy and try and show them how to stay composed and how to keep their confidence high. We're all going to struggle a little in our first road game but the key is to keep playing with confidence even when you struggle."

Steele said he is personally looking forward to his first big road challenge of the season and hopes it will help foster camaraderie among some of the younger players.

"I really enjoy playing on the road," Steele said. "It's kind of a rallying point for the team. We get that feeling like it's us against the world. It's going to be tough if it's really loud and they start feeding off their home crowd so we have to be extra sharp and really focus more than we have so far in all our home games."

Steele also said that he believes his leadership will need to come through on Thursday for his team to have a chance to win.

"I think the older I've gotten, I feel like I have to be more aggressive on the road. I feel like I really need to lead the team in that way. Sometimes at home, people feel more confident and more comfortable. Having played on the road a couple of times as a freshman, I feel more confident on the road now and I try to come out and be more aggressive from the start in road games."

Steele's on the road to recovery

Steele's ability to lead his team may depend on whether or not he can bounce back from the tendonitis that has been nagging his right now, sidelining him from two games this season and limiting him in others.

"We're a different team when he's 100 percent," said Gottfried. "You can ask anybody with a First Team All-American and they'll tell you they're better when he's healthy. We're hoping he'll be feeling well come Thursday night."

"He was OK at practice yesterday, a little gimpy still. We're following right along with what our doctors are telling us to do and they say he needs to play and work out. I didn't want to play him as many minutes as we did the other night but he wants to compete. Any injury with your ankles, knees or any part of your legs just affects everything about your game. It affects your balance, how quick you are, how explosive you are. Unfortunately for him, he's having to compensate for that right now but hopefully this isn't going to last long."

Steele said he is confident that his injury will soon be behind him.

"It's getting better. Hopefully I'm working out of it," Steele said. "I go through these up and down stages but I don't really see it getting worse. As time goes on in practice it usually feels better. I think I'm working out of it."

"I think when we sat him for 9 days it may have been counterproductive. He needs to loosen up and get the blood flowing back to his knee and start playing again and hopefully that soreness will go away."

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