Surprise! SEC's 'other' teams pretty Sweet

Alabama coach Mark Gottfried says this is Bunker Time. Time to close the office door, turn off the cell phone and shut down the e-mail. Time to limit -- as best he can -- the well-wishers, the back-slappers, the ticket-seekers and the interview-requesters.

Time to hunker down with videotape of Syracuse and concentrate on basketball.

But before crawling into his Sweet 16 spider hole, Gottfried picked up the phone Monday morning and placed a call of his own. He dialed up the other surprise survivor from the Southeastern Conference, Kevin Stallings of Vanderbilt.

The topic?

"It was a little bit of, 'Who would've thought this?'" Stallings said. "And a call of good luck."

Well, who would have thought this? Who would have thought that an SEC season utterly dominated by Kentucky and Mississippi State would end up with both on the sidelines after one weekend of NCAA Tournament play? Who would have thought that the remaining SEC reps would be a pair of mid-packers who went 8-8 in league play and were very much on the bubble into the season's latter stages? Who would have thought that a team labeled "too white" and a team strafed by early entry to the NBA would be the two SEC teams still dancing?

Not this hack, who just two weeks ago proclaimed the SEC tournament to be "Kentucky, Mississippi State and 10 chasers." (My bad.)

Instead we have 'Bama and Vandy taking on the Big East in Phoenix. (Naturally. Where else would you expect four school from east of the Mississippi to congregate? At least the airlines are happy.)

Alabama faces defending national titlist Syracuse, which seems to be feeling its championship pedigree at just the right time. Vanderbilt plays scary-looking Connecticut, which hasn't needed Emeka Okafor (or Jim Calhoun, for that matter) to be at full strength in breezing through two games.

The SEC schools will be hard-pressed to give the conference its first Final Four team since Florida in 2000. UConn is a nine-point favorite; Syracuse favored by just under a basket. And the SEC schools are fighting their own history as well.

Neither have made a Final Four -- and, in modern times, have never even made a regional final. (Vanderbilt advanced to the final eight in 1965, but that was horse-and-buggy era. The Commodores only had to win one game to get there.)

That lack of long-term success is why neither Gottfried nor Stallings feels grandiose enough to proclaim their programs the standard bearers for the SEC.

"We've got great teams in our league," Gottfried said. " ... Nobody really thought that would happen, but that's the beauty of the NCAA Tournament. It's the greatest show on Earth."

Said Stallings: "I would hate to say we're carrying the torch for this league. That would be a slap in Kentucky's face, because they've been carrying the torch for our league for the last 50 years. ... I'm just proud of the fact that we're still playing, and these guys are defying the odds and the doubters and the naysayers."

The Commodores have had plenty of those. They've been considered too pointy-headed and even too pale to play with the big boys in the Big Dance. When the school shuffled out athletic director Todd Turner and placed athletics under the oversight of a vice chancellor who also administers intramurals, competitors had a field day shouting that the school was de-emphasizing athletics. (We aren't, the Commodores maintain.)

And this Vandy team, coming off an 11-18 season that might have put Stallings' job in jeopardy, was not predicted to do anything spectacular. Even when the Commodores did, breezing through the non-league schedule undefeated, some people suspected they weren't tough enough to withstand conference play.

Then even in the postseason Vanderbilt was a one-point underdog to Western Michigan in the first round -- a profound insult for a No. 6 seed taking on an 11. One prominent national columnist labeled the Commodores "too white" to win a game.

Now they've won two -- taking down the Broncos and then making a miraculous comeback from nine down in the final 2½ minutes to upset No. 3 seed North Carolina State on Sunday.

"I think this shows we're not soft and we don't have too many white boys," star player Matt Freije, who is pretty fly for a white guy, told the Nashville Tennessean. "... Nobody on this team keeps up with how many guys are black and how many guys are white. We're a team. We play for each other."

The 'Dores are indeed a team, but Freije is the unquestioned star. At 6-foot-10, 250, he's a threat to score anywhere from the low post to the 3-point line, averaging 18.7 points per game. He's improved his body this year and, not coincidentally, improved his rebounding (5.4 per game) and ability to bang his way to the free throw line (he's attempted 94 more free throws this year than last). And in the game that got Vandy here, Freije scored 31 points on the Wolfpack (his fourth 30-point-plus game of the season).

"You just get on him and ride him," Stallings said. "He's put this team on his back a number of times this season, and he certainly did (Sunday) afternoon. It was a phenomenal performance. He ultimately took over the game and decided the outcome of the game."

Freije will have to be at his very best against a UConn team that beat Vandy each of the previous two years, by six in Nashville last season and by 13 in Storrs the previous season. The 'Dores have the offensive firepower to stay in the game, but the Huskies would appear to have the advantage in perimeter quickness and the number of big, physical players they can throw into the fray - led by Okafor.

"Yes, we've seen him before," Stallings said. "He tore us apart last year."

Stallings began the season full of optimism about his team. Gottfried was just the opposite.

"We're not very good," was his preseason and early-season mantra.

Gottfried seemed justified in his pessimism after losing Erwin Dudley and Kenny Walker to graduation, plus sophomore point guard Mo Williams to the NBA draft, plus potential recruit James Lang, who went pro straight out of high school. (To little effect.)

This Alabama team is powered by a big-hearted senior and former walk-on, Antoine Pettway, junior sharp-shooter Earnest Shelton, and a cast of rapidly maturing younger talents. Kennedy Winston is the leading man among the young guns and is 'Bama's leading scorer at 16.9 points per game.

"It really doesn't matter what you did before," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "It's what you're doing now. And they're playing as well as anyone."

Combine the elements and maybe Alabama is pretty good -- good enough to commandeer the cover of Sports Illustrated this week. Yet Gottfried is reiterating his claim, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary.

"We're not very good," he said again. "They just compete. They have done a great job this year, so I'm going to stay with that.

"I'm just excited for this group of guys. They were picked fifth and sixth in the (SEC) West. They've done a fantastic job, but I don't think our mindset is, with everyone patting you on the back, 'This is good enough. Let's go home.'"

The Crimson Tide has actually shown remarkable survival instincts, winning two games in Seattle by a total of four points. Alabama squeezed past Southern Illinois on a difficult shot with five seconds left by Pettway, then mounted a stunning comeback from 12 down with less than eight minutes to play to defrock Stanford.

The Tide was toughened for those moments by playing the hardest schedule in the country, and by closing the season with six of their last eight games decided by four points or less. But, yeah, there's been a little luck involved in the Big Dance.

"We've had two shots in the air on the same rim at the same end of the floor with a chance to go in (and either beat or tie the Tide)," Gottfried said. "And they've both missed."

But good fortune has been buttressed by what seems to be an increased supply of guts in this Alabama team. That might trickle down from Pettway.

"He's such a competitor," Gottfried said. "He has such a fire in his belly that it's contagious. Our other players respond to him. ... He's made so many big shots, so many great plays."

Now Pettway & Co. come face-to-face with a team that knows all about big shots and great plays at tournament time. Syracuse point guard Gerry McNamara looked like he was channeling his Superdome first half from last year against BYU in the first round, scoring 28 in the first 20 minutes and 43 for the game. Then it was Hakim Warrick, whose blocked shot preserved the '03 national title, rising to the occasion by putting up 26 points and nine rebounds on Maryland in round two.

"We have a lot of guys on our team who are very athletic," Gottfried said. "But Hakim Warrick is on another level. ... Their whole team knows how to win."

Shelton and Winston shoot well enough to challenge the elasticity of the vaunted Syracuse zone. Jermareo Davidson and Chuck Davis are long and athletic enough to at least both Warrick and Craig Forth inside. Pettway can match McNamara's guts and zest to take the big shot.

Is that enough? Maybe not. But then again, who expected Alabama or Vanderbilt to be the SEC teams still playing anyway?

Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.