To promote juniorpoint guard Ronald Steele, Alabama's marketing and sports information officesare planning to send backpacks emblazoned with his number 22 to members of thenational media. The free pack is a fitting reminder that the Crimson Tide willgo only as far as Steele can carry it.
In fact, giventhat Alabama has only one other returning player with more than a year ofcollege experience (senior forward-center Jermareo Davidson), the 6'3"Steele will be shouldering an even heavier load than he did a year ago, when heled the team in total points (444), assists (132), steals (45), free throwpercentage (an SEC-best 89.2) and minutes played (a staggering 38.4 per game,including 40.3 in conference games). Asked what would happen if Steele were toget injured, coach Mark Gottfried mutters, "Whoo, I don't want to thinkabout that. That's like taking Dwyane Wade off the Heat."
The analogy isnot far off: When the Crimson Tide lost star forward Chuck Davis last Januaryto a torn ACL, its record stood at a bubblicious 7--6. Over the next 14 games,Steele played all but five minutes while leading the suddenly rolling Tide to10 wins. Included in that stretch were overtime victories against Arkansas andVanderbilt and upsets of LSU, Tennessee and future NCAA champ Florida (theGators' final loss of the season). Despite not having scored more than 18points in a game before Davis went down, Steele topped that number nine timesthe rest of the way. (He scored 23 and 21 points in the Tide's two NCAAtournament games.)
One thingGottfried and his coaches must figure out is how to rest Steele. "At timesI had to pace myself and conserve my energy," says Steele, whoseassist-to-turnover ratio dropped from 2.46 to 1 as a freshman to 1.59 to 1 lastyear. "If I ever gave [Coach] a signal [about coming out], he'd look at melike, You can't be tired. This year I can focus on just playing hard."
Or at least hewill if 6'4" freshman Mikhail Torrance, who's being converted from shootingguard to point guard, proves to be a solid backup. Steele will also besupported by one of the best frontcourts in the country, anchored by theathletic Davidson and rugged sophomore Richard Hendrix.
Each Alabamapractice ends with the chant "A-T-L!," a reference to Atlanta, the siteof this year's Final Four. Alabama has never advanced beyond the Elite Eight,but if the Tide makes it to Atlanta, everyone will know on whose back itarrived.
RETURNING STARTER*JUNIOR COLLEGE STATS
Despite four returning starters, does the Tide have enough depth?... After aneasy schedule for the first two months, will it be prepared for the toughstretch that begins in January?... Will a lack of long-range shooters sweep theTide out to sea?
Nov. 10 JacksonSt.
Nov. 17 MiddleTennessee St.*
Nov. 25 TexasSouthern
Dec. 2 TennesseeSt.
Dec. 7 at NotreDame
Dec. 9 AlabamaSt.
Dec. 16 SouthernMiss‚Ä†
Dec. 20 at N.C.St.
Dec. 23 CoppinSt.
Jan. 6 atArkansas
Jan. 9 LSU
Jan. 17 atVanderbilt
Jan. 23 atAuburn
Jan. 31 atLSU
Feb. 3 SouthCarolina
Feb. 7Mississippi St.
Feb. 10 at OleMiss
Feb. 14 atFlorida
Feb. 21 atTennessee
Feb. 28 OleMiss
March 4 atMississippi St.
*Paradise Jam,St. Thomas, Virgin Islands ‚Ä†Coors Classic, Mobile
COACH: Mark Gottfried (9th year)
2005--06 record: 18--13
SEC record: 10--6 (second West)
NCAA tournament: second round
The team leader in total points (444) last year, Steele played all but nineminutes in Alabama's final 18 games.