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February 9, 2011TUSCALOOSA _ The elevated floor is pretty unusual.
The benches behind the baskets is unique for even Anthony Grant as a head coach.
"Aint never seen that," University of Alabama sophomore forward Tony Mitchell said.
But winning at Vanderbilt? The Crimson Tide hasn't done that since before many of the players on the roster were born. It's hasn't been just a tough place to play, but a death trap for the program.
"It's a different team," Grant said about Thursday's game (8 p.m., ESPN2). "Every year is a different identity."
Still, even though Alabama is 20-40 all-time against the Commodores in Nashville, its last win at Memorial Gymnasium was Feb. 3, 1990 _ Nelson Mandela was still in prison, the Berlin Wall had just been torn down and Bill Clinton was putting himself into position to run for president.
Only junior forward JaMychal Green, senior guard Senario Hillman and redshirt sophomore guard/forward Andrew Steele played there two years ago when the Commodores pulled out a 79-74 victory.
That's the other thing about the series of late, the games have been fiercely close. Two of the past six meetings required overtime and last year Vanderbilt escaped Coleman Coliseum with a 65-64 win when the Tide missed its last-second shot.
This could follow suit as the No. 23 Commodores (16-6, 4-4 SEC) have been consistently good in multiple ways.
"Versatile group in terms of the ability to put the ball in the hole," Grant said. "They can beat on the perimeter and they can beat you inside. Very physical, very big team.
"Those pose a lot of problems."
Vanderbilt leads the SEC in scoring and is 25th nationally by averaging 77.9 points per game, which goes up to 82.7 at home where it's 12-1 this season. In its most recent game it held Tennessee to a season-low 34.9 percent shooting and forced 18 turnovers.
The Commodores also have some depth, and if the game is physical as expected the Crimson Tide will need to avoid some of the foul problems it experienced last week, including Saturday's 65-60 victory in Knoxville where three starters played with flu-like symptoms.
"We have to look at what we need to do should those situations arise again in terms of who plays and who doesn't play," Grant said. "We had some talk yesterday about guys being prepared for opportunity when it presents itself."
Defense, of course, has been Alabama's staple. The Crimson Tide leads the nation in both opponent field-goal percentage and (.362), and points allowed per possession (0.83). It's third in scoring defense (57.3), and sixth in steals per game (9.6).
If Alabama can keep this pace, the opposing field-goal percentage will be the best in SEC history, and the points allowed fifth.
"Scoring takes all of two seconds," Grant said when talking specifically about Mitchell, who quietly had a career-high 23 points against Mississippi State and then came off the bench to top that with 24 at Tennessee, accounting for 34 percent of Alabama's scoring in the two wins. "You can impact the game in a lot of different ways and we preach that to all our guys."
Alabama (15-7 overall, 7-1 SEC) may need another performance like that from Mitchell and others if it's to kill the Memorial curse. Even though the Tide has won 10 of its last 11 games, including all three against the East Division, and three of its last four road games, a win could do wonders for its NCAA Tournament hopes.
Still having to overcome its horrendous non-conference schedule, Alabama received its first votes in both Top 25 polls this week, and Vanderbilt is the only ranked team on the schedule until the final road game at Florida on March 1.
"With Tony, you know what you're going to get from him every night, he's going to give you his all," said guard Trevor Releford, the SEC Freshman of the Week. "He's going to defend, he's going to score, he's going to rebound. I think he's just getting better every game."
Oh, Mitchell dunks a lot too, with his 41 more than twice as many as all opponents combined, helping give Alabama a 86-16 edge.
"From the start he told me to get it by the rim and he'll go get it," Releford added.