The University of Alabama men's basketball program has been ranked first in the country twice in program history. Chris Stewart had a front-row seat during both of those seasons.
The Crimson Tide ascended to the top of the Associated Press rankings for the first time in December of 2002. At the time, Stewart was in his first season as the voice of the Crimson Tide men's basketball program. On Monday, in Stewart's 21st season, the Crimson Tide got back on top of the rankings.
"It's unbelievably cool, just on its own merit," Stewart said. "There are a lot of places that this happens multiple times. I get it's not a big deal for them. But, we're in that large majority (in men's basketball) of the everybody else category, where being No. 1 is unique, and it's special. It's the one thing that Alabama fans understand, whether they're basketball fans or not. They understand if they're an Alabama football fan, being No. 1 in the country."
Obviously, there is a lot of season left to play, and the goal is to be the top team at the end of the NCAA Tournament.
"That's a special thing, even though you don't win a ring whatsoever, being number one in the country on Monday, February 13," Stewart said. "There's no ring for that. But for the program, I think it does mean a lot. For the fan base, it does mean a lot. It certainly meant a lot 21 years ago."
In 1995, Stewart served as the play-by-play voice as Birmingham-Southern won the NAIA national championship in Tulsa. He thought back to that season, his first on the call for the Panthers, when the Crimson Tide became No. 1 in the country in December.
"I thought it was my first-year magic coming back again," Stewart said. "It was really cool on Christmas Day to be doing play-by-play for the No. 1 team in the country. And, then, we were the last at-large team to get in because we fell off the map."
That Alabama team, which was coached by Mark Gottfried, returned the bulk of the roster from a team that won the SEC regular season title and were a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Erwin Dudley, the SEC Player of the Year as a junior, was a senior on the 2002-03 team. Antoine Pettway, who is currently in his 11th season as an assistant coach for the Crimson Tide, was a key contributor on a team that also included future NBA guard Mo Williams.
When Alabama became the No. 1 team, the Crimson Tide was 8-0 with a win over then-No. 3 ranked Oklahoma in the regular season opening Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden. As the No. 1 team, Alabama beat Morehead State 82-64, lost at Utah 51-49, and beat No. 19 Xavier 65-58. The Crimson Tide dropped to No. 4 in the next poll after the Xavier game. The Crimson Tide finished 7-9 in SEC play, dropped an 82-69 decision to Vanderbilt in the opening round of the SEC Tournament and was the 10th seed in the NCAA Tournament. They were quickly bounced from the tournament in Boston by Mike Davis' Indiana team.
There is a completely different feel around this No. 1 team, which is 23-2 overall and 12-0 in SEC.
"This is so different because this is such an incredibly young team, and yet, they play with so much poise, toughness and maturity," Stewart said. "The thing that's most exciting for me is, as good as they have been, I'm not sure they hit their ceiling yet. These guys, so many of them, are so young. They're still trying to figure everything out. Of the 11 kids that are on scholarship, the last two weeks is the only time all of them have been healthy at the same time. They're trying to figure out who is going to be (on the floor). The rotation can change every night."
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