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March 22, 2012

HURT: Gottfried having early success with N.C. State

Until tonight, the University of Alabama basketball team and former Crimson Tide player and coach Mark Gottfried had been waiting the same amount of time for a return to the Sweet 16. Tonight, Gottfried will make it back before Alabama, a turn of events that few people would have foreseen before the college basketball season began.

North Carolina State will be playing Kansas tonight, a game that will stir a variety of emotions for Crimson Tide fans. Some will take the high road. Gottfried was part of three Sweet 16 teams as an Alabama player and one more in 11 years as a coach before he and UA came to a parting of the ways in January 2009.

He was hired at North Carolina State, to the surprise of some, last spring, and after a late surge put them into the tournament as one of the lower at-large seeds (an 11), the Wolfpack took advantage, beating higher seeds San Diego State and Georgetown to advance to the regional in St. Louis.

There's nothing flukish about that. Gottfried bristled at one question at his Thursday press conference at the Edward R. Jones Dome that suggested the Wolfpack was "playing with house money" now that they had made it this far.

"I don't see it that way at all," Gottfried said. "I think what you do if you put your mindset in that frame of mind, that you're playing with house money, you're saying that we're not really supposed to be here. I just don't know that you value it that much. I think our team feels like it has earned the right to be here, just like anybody else."

No one should be questioning that, or that Gottfried deserves the credit for getting the Wolfpack to this point. He was probably the right coach at the right time for N.C. State, which had some good players (notably C.J. Leslie) but didn't have a winning attitude.

Gottfried brought some of his trademark brand of optimism - he has echoed his frequent Alabama theme of "I like my team" frequently during this Wolfpack run. He has also brought in an experienced bench coach in Bobby Lutz. You can cue the muttering from some UA fans here as they wonder why he didn't bring in a similar veteran presence in his last couple of years in Tuscaloosa.

The combination has worked, and Gottfried has succeeded at exceeding low expectations. And since this is his first year in Raleigh, he hasn't had to deal with the other side of the coin - living up to high expectations - which was more of a problem in his coaching tenure with the Crimson Tide. Those expectations will come soon enough, but for now, he is basking in the golden glow generated by giving a fan base more than it expected.

That shouldn't be anything that Alabama fans begrudge their former coach. Yes, his exit was difficult and feelings were bruised. But perhaps that, and some time away from coaching, helped Gottfried grow. If he can win tonight against Kansas and replicate his Elite Eight run at Alabama, that should stir good memories, not pettiness.

Everyone involved should have moved on by now, so if N.C. State moves on tonight, there's no reason not to feel good for the former UA player and coach.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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