Editor's Note: ESPN Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook to provide a comprehensive look at all 326 Division I teams. To order the complete 2006-07 edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, visit www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).
(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
To step up, says the Mirriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, is "to succeed in meeting a challenge [as by increased effort or improved performance]."
What better way to describe Alabama basketball in 2005-06?
Even coach Mark Gottfried might have feared the Crimson Tide's season was spiraling southward on the morning of Jan. 8, when he got word that his leading scorer and best low-post player, Chuck Davis, was lost for the rest of the year after blowing out his knee in a loss to Ole Miss the night before.
And if he didn't think Alabama was doomed just then, Gottfried might have come around to that line of thinking two weeks later, when guard Justin Jonus, one of the team's few remaining perimeter scoring threats, abruptly quit the team, leaving Gottfried with just seven scholarship players.
Not that Jonus was any world beater. But his departure, coupled with transfers and academic problems that cost the program four other players before the season began, left the Tide two foul outs and a twisted ankle away from finishing games with walk-ons. That's a scary proposition in any league, let alone the Southeastern Conference.
But at the height of Gottfried's despair, the Tide's luck began to change. Those foul outs and ankle injuries never happened. And several players, their roles drastically altered by the loss of Davis, began to succeed in meeting a challenge (as by increased effort or improved performance).
In other words, they stepped up.
We're talking Jermareo Davidson, formerly the second or even third banana in the 'Bama frontcourt who became one of the most dominant big men in the SEC. We're talking Ron Steele, who became the league's most reliable point guard and a big-time scoring threat. Throw in freshman Alonzo Gee, whose indoctrination into major college hoops was more of a crash course that he passed with honors, and mercurial forward Jean Felix, who began to shoot 'Bama in to more games than he shot it out of. And lest we forget Richard Hendrix ... let's just say not many freshmen with as much notoriety as he brought to Tuscaloosa live up to their hype. Hendrix did.
That small but determined band of players rallied for a cause, won enough SEC games to earn an NCAA Tournament bid and came within a missed three-pointer in the final seconds of beating UCLA and advancing to the Sweet 16.
Depth? Who needs it?
"I was really proud of our team," Gottfried said. "We were a jump shot away from going to the Sweet 16. Our kids did everything they could do. We had unbelievable chemistry and we worked hard."
And, after a run of crummy luck, Alabama's fortunes took a turn for the better.
"After Chuck went down, we got lucky," Gottfried said. "From Jan. 7 until the UCLA game, we did not have so much as a torn fingernail. If at any point in time we lost a kid with a sprained ankle for two weeks, we'd have really been hurting. But we held it together."
The trip to the NCAAs was the fifth straight under Gottfried, a streak that will increase come March. Alabama's nucleus returns, along with six freshmen and a junior college transfer -- newcomers that will provide much-needed depth and allow Gottfried a good night's sleep. No longer does he have to lie awake pondering the impact of a sprained ankle.
PG Ronald Steele (6-3, 185 lbs., JR, #22, 14.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.4 spg, 2.6 tpg, 38.4 mpg, .416 FG, .412 3PT, .892 FT, John Carroll HS/Birmingham, Ala.)
Last season Steele made a career's worth of clutch baskets, many of which helped Alabama build a resume worthy of earning an NCAA Tournament bid. But those shots are just a distant memory for Steele. The one he can't forget, the one that haunted him for months and drove him to the point of exhaustion in off-season workouts, didn't go in the hole.
Six seconds remained in Alabama's second-round NCAA Tournament game against UCLA when Steele launched the shot, a three-pointer. The Tide trailed 61-59. Had the ball gone in, the Tide might have made another extended tournament run like they did in 2004, when they reached the Elite Eight. Steele's name would have become a part of Alabama basketball lore.
It wasn't to be. The ball bounced off the front rim and UCLA, not Alabama, advanced to the Sweet 16 and played its way into the national championship game.
Steele was devastated, a feeling he allowed to linger as he shot thousands of jumpers in the spring and summer. It wasn't as though he needed to do the gym rat thing. Steele has shot 42 percent from three-point range over his two-year career.
"He's a great shooter," Gottfried said. "But he could make 100 in a row, and the one that sticks in his mind is the one that he missed against UCLA," Gottfried said. "That's what motivates him. He knows he'll be in that situation again, and he wants to be ready. That's driving him every day. He's a perfectionist."
Steele might also be the best point guard in the country. Gottfried certainly thinks so.
"I think he's the best point guard in the nation, and I've done my homework," Gottfried said. "There are other great point guards in college basketball. But we would not trade Ron Steele for anybody.
"What makes him so good is he's as pure from the standpoint of his motives as anybody I've been around. There is nothing that's more important than winning to Ron. Nothing. Individual statistics, he could care less. He's as genuine and as pure and as for-the-team as anybody in the country. That's the biggest compliment you can give a guy like that."
Steele may not care about numbers, but he put up some impressive ones last season while rarely getting a rest. He led the SEC in minutes played, and in league games only he averaged 40.31 minutes. The guy never came out, yet he fought through fatigue and still delivered. Steele's either a glutton for pain or immune to it.
Asked to shoot more often, which he willingly did for the good of his team, Steele became one of the more prolific scorers in the SEC. In Alabama's eight games in February, Steele was the Tide's leading scorer in seven of them. He scored 20 or more points in five of those games -- including 29 against Arkansas and 26 against Georgia -- and 19 in another.
Steele still produced excellent point-guard stats. He led the SEC in free-throw percentage, was eighth in assists and ninth in assists to turnover ratio (1.59-1).
That latter number is particularly impressive considering Steele never got a chance to sit. Fatigue can negatively affect a player's decision making, but it didn't bother Steele.
"He doesn't make mistakes," Gottfried said. "He handles the ball most of the time and understands the value of not turning it over."
As good as he was last year, Steele seems certain to take his game to another level this season. He'll finally get to catch a breather now and then thanks to the presence of a couple of freshman guards who can handle the point. The rest will make Steele even more effective. A first-team All-SEC pick in 2005-06, Steele will ascend to All-American status this season, an opportunity he gave himself by wisely choosing not to enter the NBA draft.
"I realized that I wasn't ready," Steele said after announcing he would stay at Alabama for at least one more year, probably two. "I didn't think I was ready. I wasn't guaranteed to be in the first round. After talking to my parents, I really wanted to graduate. I wasn't going to take the risk."
SG Alonzo Gee (6-6, 215 lbs., SO, #12, 8.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.2 apg, 0.9 spg, 23.2 mpg, .484 FG, .296 3PT, .514 FT, Dwyer HS/Palm Beach, Fla.)
Gottfried hates to single out any one player as being critical to Alabama's success, for fear it will put too much pressure on him. Apparently Gottfried thinks Gee, who earned SEC All-Freshman team honors last season, is tough enough to handle a little extra pressure.
"You hate to put it on one guy," Gottfried said. "But … what Alonzo is able to do this season will determine a lot of our team's success. As his game rises up and becomes more consistent, we get that fourth player you can depend on every night. And we become very good."
Gottfried uses that "C" word with good reason.
"Alonzo had moments last season where he was really good," Gottfried said. "Then, typical of freshmen, he had moments where he was nonexistent."
Examples of the latter came in February, all in close SEC defeats that could easily have gone the other way. Gee scored two points in a 67-62 loss at LSU, eight in a 67-56 loss at South Carolina, and six, before fouling out, in a 65-63 loss at Arkansas.
Now for the good stuff. In the Tide's last four games before the NCAA Tournament, Gee contributed 11 points in a win over eventual national champion Florida, 21 against Auburn, 15 at Mississippi State and 18 versus Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. Gee must have loved playing against Auburn -- he also racked up his only double-double of the season (17 points, 10 boards) in an earlier game against the Tigers.
All that and Gee didn't even start the last two months, giving way to fellow freshman Brandon Hollinger. Gee felt more comfortable coming off the bench, but chances are good he's going to have to get used to hearing his name called before the opening tip.
In his first season, Gee fooled Gottfried and his staff a bit.
"It was funny," Gottfried said. "In high school, I thought he was a stand-still shooter. In his first year of college, he was a slasher/scorer type. We hope his game becomes more complete as he gets older."
Chances are good it will. Gee's three-point percentage (he connected on 24-of-81 from behind the arc), wasn't too far from being decent. Had he made three more threes, Gee would have shot 33 percent, a solid number and a good barometer of whether a player should even be taking that shot.
A bit more patience here, better shot selection there, and all of a sudden Gee is a bear to guard, because opponents have to respect his jumper. He already has the ability to get to the rim in a hurry, and with his size can post up smaller defenders. Gee is also strong enough to sneak into the lane for the occasional offensive rebound and garbage basket. Last season he snagged 46 offensive boards, third on the team.
More consistency in Gee's perimeter game, says Gottfried, is all that separates him from a very good SEC player of recent vintage.
"He's not the shooter [former Georgia star] Jarvis Hayes was," Gottfried said. "But physically, he can be that kind of player. He can really score."
Yeah, Gottfried must think Gee is tough enough to handle a little extra pressure.
SF Mykal Riley (6-6, 185 lbs., JR, #1, 18.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.4 spg, .440 FG, .390 3PT, .740 FT, Pine Bluff HS/Pine Bluff, Ark. and Panola JC/Panola, Texas)
Gottfried ought to send former Missouri coach Quin Snyder a Christmas card this year. In a roundabout way, he can thank Snyder's problems at Mizzou for Riley, a gift that fell into the 'Bama coaches' laps late in the spring signing period.
After Snyder was let go, the school hired UAB coach Mike Anderson. Riley, who had signed with the Blazers in November, didn't want to play for Anderson's replacement, former Indiana coach Mike Davis, so he asked for his release and reopened his recruitment. Upper-major schools jumped on him faster than a thirsty Texan can chug a Shiner Bock.
Riley thought seriously about following Anderson to Missouri -- and he would have been a perfect fit in Anderson's system -- but the reason he signed with UAB in the first place was that the Blazers had been built into a perennial NCAA Tournament team. With just two years of eligibility remaining, Riley wanted no part of a rebuilding job. He wanted to go to a program that played in the postseason, and one where he could make an immediate impact.
Alabama was the perfect choice.
Riley played on a state championship team as a senior in high school, but he averaged only about five points and three rebounds -- not exactly the kind of stats that would land him a scholarship to an SEC school, or any other Division I school for that matter. So Riley headed for Quachita Baptist for a brief time before enrolling at Panola Junior College. It was there he took off.
Riley's stats seemed to increase in direct proportion to his growth spurt. He added four inches to his frame and began to emerge into a game breaker -- as a shooter and a defender. Last season he made 93 three-pointers and also came up with 105 steals.
"This kid's an extremely good shooter with great range," Gottfried said. "We just felt like we needed to sign another perimeter player with some size. We were happy to get him, especially so late in the process. He was a good pick-up."
Though it remains to be seen if Riley can be as effective a shooter in the SEC as he was in junior college, one thing is certain. He's not afraid to fire away. Last season Riley hoisted 238 three-pointers in 24 games, an average of nearly 10 a game that, by comparison, makes even the trigger happy Jean Felix look like a defensive specialist.
We're taking the liberty of listing Riley as a starter, under the assumption Gottfried wouldn't want to use a scholarship on a junior college player if he didn't intend to play him right away. Riley will replace the contributions of Felix, but he's a slightly different player. Felix could also make three-pointers, but he was a lot more streaky a shooter than Riley has shown, albeit at a lower level of competition. And where Felix was a lockdown on-ball defender, Riley does his damage getting into the passing lanes and picking off errant passes.
"He'll get a lot of steals," Riley's former high school coach, Ron Moragne, told the Pine Bluff Commercial. "But the biggest thing he brings is his outside shot. He's taller than most guards or wings, even in the SEC, so he's going to get a lot of good looks from long range."
PF Richard Hendrix (6-8, 265 lbs., SO, #35, 9.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 0.7 spg, 1.5 bpg, 27.1 mpg, .557 FG, .647, Athens HS/Athens, Ala.)
Last year Hendrix showed up on campus confident he would make immediate major contributions, and who could blame him? He had dominated at the high school level -- was a man among boys, in fact -- setting state records for career rebounds (1,820) and blocked shots (667) and scoring 2,915 points.
As it turned out, Hendrix's timing was a bit off. He made major contributions all right, but it took a few games to get going. Humbled after scoring all of three free throws in Alabama's first two games, Hendrix quickly realized the college game wasn't as easy as he thought.
Then he adjusted.
One game after contributing one point and five rebounds in a Preseason NIT loss to Memphis, Hendrix scored 22 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked three shots against Alabama State. The next game he scored 12 points and snared five boards against Louisiana Tech. Old familiar feelings had been rekindled.
Hendrix's contributions were inconsistent through 'Bama's non-conference schedule, but as SEC games neared, his numbers began to increase. He scored 23 points, to go along with 12 boards and four blocks, against Jackson State, and just to show he could do the same thing against better competition, he worked over Oklahoma's rugged front line for 23 points and 12 rebounds.
When Chuck Davis went down with a knee injury in a Jan. 7 loss to Ole Miss, Hendrix got his chance to enter the starting lineup on a permanent basis. He won't be dislodged the rest of his days in Tuscaloosa.
Hendrix went right to work with a three-game stretch that showed he was capable of consistently putting up big numbers in college the way he did in high school, averaging 18.6 points and 11 rebounds against LSU, Mississippi State and Georgia. Included in that total was a 22-point, 16-rebound effort against State.
"Hendrix was a load in there," an admiring Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said after that performance.
There were other eye-opening performances the rest of the SEC season, but one stood out. How many players can say they helped a team other than their own win a national championship? After Hendrix manhandled Florida for 17 rebounds, Gator coach Billy Donovan had plenty of ammunition to convince young big men Joakim Noah and Al Horford to stop trying to block every shot in the post and focus more on establishing rebound position. The Gators didn't lose again, winning 11 straight to capture their first NCAA title.
Hendrix's board work against Florida firmly established his rep.
"We got our players' attention right away when we started talking about Richard Hendrix getting 17 rebounds against Florida," said Marquette coach Tom Crean, whose team played 'Bama in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Hendrix, who wound up second in the SEC in rebounding in league games only (9.2 rpg), should be better this season.
"Consistency was an issue with Richard last year, but that will be better," Gottfried said. "He's a very, very determined guy. He's hard on himself. He doesn't ever feel like he's where he wants to be and is always trying to get better."
Hendrix's upbringing has much to do with that. His parents are teachers, and he played high school basketball for his father, Venard. Two sisters attended Alabama before him and earned their degrees. Hard work is expected in the Hendrix family.
Not surprisingly, Hendrix put in some long hours in the off-season, fine-tuning his game. Gottfried says (warns?) opponents should look for a new wrinkle or two this season.
"He can step out and shoot it," Gottfried said. "He'll show more of that this year."
Add that to his other skills and, as Stansbury said, Hendrix will be a load.
"He's a low post guy who can be a hard player to defend because of his size," Gottfried said. "He's got great hands. Know show to create space with his body and use his body well. A face-up game will make him that much tougher to deal with."
C Jermareo Davidson (6-10, 235 lbs., SR, #33, 14.3 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 0.8 spg, 1.8 bpg, 33.8 mpg, .477 FG, .746 FT, Wheeler HS/Atlanta, Ga.)
After a seemingly endless parade of talented players -- including Gerald Wallace, Rod Grizzard, Mo Williams and Kennedy Winston -- surrendered their eligibility to declare for the NBA draft during Gottfried's time at Alabama, he was due a break. And in the off-season, he got two, when Ron Steele and Davidson decided to stay in school.
Like Steele, Davidson showed rare maturity in resisting the urge to turn pro.
"I gave it some careful thought and talked a lot about it with my mother," Davidson said when he announced his decision. "And we knew what was important to us. I'm on track to graduate, and that's important to me and to my family. And I want to help Alabama win championships and reach its goal of making it to the Final Four. That's always been my dream, too. I also want to work on my game and bring it to a higher level, and I know playing another season in the SEC can help me do that."
Davidson went right to work taking advantage of his final year in Tuscaloosa. Last season, during which he earned first-team All-SEC honors, he played at 218 pounds. He tacked on another 17 during the summer while working with Alabama's acclaimed strength and conditioning staff.
"That's been his big issue in the past," Gottfried said. "Strength. As his size and strength improves, his game will improve."
If Davidson gets much better, he's going to be scary.
"I think he's as good as any big man in the nation," Gottfried said. "You don't see a lot of guys who can do what he does.
"He has a lot of strengths. Defensively, he can block shots; he's great to have on the back line of your defense. Offensively, he's just real versatile. He's agile and quick. Last year he started to show people a 14-, 15-, 16-foot jump shot and made it consistently. He can score with his back to the basket and can beat you facing up. He's got a jump hook with both his right hand and left hand. Jermareo has a variety of ways to beat you."
Gottfried plans on letting Davidson add another weapon to his arsenal -- the three-pointer. "He's proven to me he can make that shot [though Davidson was 0-for-3 from three-point range a year ago]," Gottfried said. "There will be times when we'll let him step behind the line some. When he adds that to his game, he'll really be tough to guard."
Davidson was already a handful. Last season, his emergence as a consistent offensive threat was a big key to the Tide being able to overcome the loss of Chuck Davis. One game after Davis went down, Davidson showed how capable he was of taking on a major portion of the scoring load when he dropped a career-high 28 points on Kentucky.
"We just didn't have an answer for him," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said.
Memphis coach John Calipari knows how that feels. Last season Davidson torched the Tigers for 17 points, a career-high 19 rebounds and four blocked shots.
Davidson posted 10 other double-doubles in 2005-06, all while averaging 36 minutes, unheard of for a big man. No wonder he played at 218 pounds.
This year, because Alabama has a bit more depth up front, Davidson will play less, but his statistics will improve.
Gottfried couldn't be happier Davidson decided to stick around.
"I think he made a great decision -- for a lot of reasons," Gottfried said. "Selfishly, it's great for our team.
But for Jermareo, he's got a chance to reach a lot of individual goals. We're happy for him."
G Verice Cloyd (6-3, 185 lbs., FR, #15, 21.0 ppg, 7.0 apg, Genesis One/Mendenhall, Miss.)
Cloyd had to sweat it out during the late spring and early summer until first the NCAA, and later Alabama, decided on his fate. But in a week's span in July, the NCAA, after an investigation of so-called "diploma mill" high schools, deemed Genesis One -- where Cloyd played his final two years -- legitimate, and Alabama admitted Cloyd into school in time for its second summer session.
Cloyd was elated, but no more so than Gottfried, who needed another scorer and signed several, hoping one or two might contribute, and quickly.
Of all the freshmen signed by Alabama, Cloyd might be the most ready to correct the team's one glaring weakness.
"He's probably the most natural off-guard in the batch," Gottfried said. "He's can really score. He shoots it well, and he can handle the ball. He's got a good chance to play."
Cloyd isn't just a scorer. A native of Nashville who played his first two seasons of high school basketball at College Heights Christian Academy, Cloyd was a hot commodity among SEC schools because of his versatility. LSU and Tennessee recruited him as a point guard. Auburn, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt liked his scoring ability.
Cloyd comes in more mature than most freshmen. For starters, he's well traveled. After his coach at College Heights left, Cloyd bolted too, first to Southern Maryland Christian Academy, and then to Genesis One after the former dropped its basketball program.
Cloyd is also married and has a young daughter, another factor that has made him grow up in a hurry. And then there were the couple of months when his future was in doubt. Cloyd worked warehouse jobs in Nashville during his time in limbo, which made him doubly sure he wanted to go to college.
The experience made him tougher.
"When I look back and think about it now, I think it really matured me," Cloyd told Rivals.com. "I think this whole process has taught me to be prepared for anything. I never thought this would happen, and neither did my family or coach Gottfried. But life throws different things at you and I've learned that you have to be ready to deal with whatever happens."
C Yamene Coleman (6-10, 220 lbs., R-FR, #34, 26.0 ppg, 13.0 rpg, 6.0 bpg in 2004-05, Wilcox Central HS/Boykin, Ala.)
Last season, Gottfried's decision to red-shirt Coleman was put to the test often, roughly every time he looked at his threadbare bench and saw two scholarship players sitting there.
"If we wanted to be completely selfish, we'd have pulled him out," Gottfried said. "But it was January, and he was mentally entrenched in red-shirt mode. We just didn't think it was fair to use up his freshman year at that point, not knowing how many minutes he'd get."
As it turned out, Gottfried will be glad he resisted the urge to activate Coleman, who used his season on the sidelines wisely, adding 25 pounds of muscle. Coleman gives Alabama a legit post rotation for the first time in Gottfried's tenure in Tuscaloosa.
"We've never really had a true post player behind our starters," Gottfried said. "Evan Brock was that guy for us last year, but he wasn't really a post guy. Yamene has become that kind of player. He can defend and rebound."
Coleman is still developing his offensive skills, but Gottfried is happy to have another big body to take up space in the paint.
"Jermareo and Richard won't have to play so much," Gottfried said. "We think [Coleman] can give us some good minutes around the basket."
F Demetrius Jemison (6-7, 225 lbs., FR, #23, 13.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 2.5 apg, 2.0 bpg, Huffman HS/Birmingham, Ala.)
Here's the most impressive statistic we can offer about Jemison. Though he played alongside Stanley Robinson -- Alabama's 2006 Mr. Basketball, a five-star prospect by every recruiting analyst and a Connecticut signee -- at state power Birmingham Huffman, Jemison managed to score more than 2,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds in his prep career.
Jemison may have been overshadowed by Robinson in the publicity department, but he didn't let that affect his game. Jemison's teammates and coaches -- at Huffman and the Birmingham Raptors summer team -- knew how valuable he was. Many times, whether it was in high school or AAU competition, Jemison was his team's leading scorer and rebounder. As a junior, Jemison was chosen the Birmingham City MVP, no small accomplishment.
When Gottfried calls Jemison "a shorter version of Richard Hendrix," that's high praise. Jemison has long ago gotten over the recruiting analysts labeling him an "undersized" power forward. Jemison's size, and his versatility, are his secret weapons.
"People always underestimate me because of my size," Jemison told Scout.com. "But I always play hard. My size has nothing to do with anything. I've got the body to bang with anybody. They think I'm too small, but they don't know I can go outside, too. People don't believe at my size, I can handle the ball. But I can."
Jemison can obviously be of immediate assistance in the Tide's post rotation, but Gottfried will use him in a variety of ways.
"He's going to fill a need for us as a player who can play a number of positions around the basket and around the perimeter," Gottfried said.
F Avery Jukes (6-8, 210 lbs., FR, #24, 10.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg, South Gwinnett HS/Snellville, Ga.)
Jukes can compare notes with Jemison about being overshadowed by a more heralded teammate. Make that two teammates. At South Gwinnett, Jukes had to share the ball with guards Mike Mercer, who last season played for Georgia, and Louis Williams, who jumped straight to the NBA.
Obviously, with that dynamic duo on the floor, Jukes had to figure out ways to get his points. So in addition to being a low-post threat, he developed another skill.
"His biggest strength is he can step out and shoot the ball," Gottfried said. "He's a true inside-outside player."
Jukes has range past the three-point line, which will come in handy for a team that struggled from the perimeter a year ago.
And Jukes has something else going for him -- he's intelligent. Jukes, who scored 1170 on the SAT, is majoring in engineering, which puts him in rare company. How many engineering majors can shoot the three?
G Mikhail Torrance (6-4, 185 lbs., FR, #2, 18.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, Mary Montgomery HS/Semmes, Ala.)
Torrance has a lot of skills, but one in particular stands out to Gottfried.
"He's ambidextrous," Gottfried said. "He can use either hand as well as any young player I've had. I like that about him."
Torrance's ability to handle the ball with either hand comes in, uh, handy while he's playing the point, which he did in high school. Along with Verice Cloyd, Torrance might be able to give the overused Steele a break now and then. But like most of the Tide newcomers, Torrance won't be limited to one spot. He could become the ultimate utility player.
"He's got great size, so he can play two or three different positions," Gottfried said. "A little at the point, a little at off guard. Maybe third guard because he's got that size, and he shoots it pretty well."
Torrance is another example of Alabama's ability under Gottfried to mine its home state for talent. Four of the Tide's seven newcomers -- counting red-shirt freshman Yamene Coleman -- played high school basketball in Alabama, and most were highly regarded. In 2006, Torrance was chosen to the Alabama Sports Writers Association's five-man Class 6A All-State team.
PG Brandon Hollinger (5-11, 170 lbs., SO, #4, 2.3 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 1.2 apg, 15.2 mpg, .333 FG, .302 3PT, .737 FT, LeFlore HS/Mobile, Ala.)
It wasn't exactly an intense recruiting battle in the spring of 2005 when the Crimson Tide signed Hollinger. Though he was Alabama's Class 6A player of the year, Hollinger's offers were mostly from the low- to mid-major level. He was set to choose from among Alabama State, Alabama A&M and South Alabama when the big state school came calling.
Alabama needed an insurance policy for its backcourt. And though Hollinger was hardly the prototypical SEC prospect, Gottfried liked something about him, calling the little guard "an intense competitor who won't back down from anyone."
Perhaps Gottfried had heard about the time in 2004, at the Nike Camp in Indianapolis, that Hollinger beat Chris Paul in a friendly game of one-on-one. But though Hollinger was unquestionably tough and competitive, no one, least of all Gottfried, expected him to start the last two months of last season. But that's exactly what Hollinger did after his roommate Chuck Davis, was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Instead of trying to replace Davis' size -- as if they had a choice -- Gottfried and his staff opted to inject a little more quickness into the lineup. And if Hollinger could make a three-pointer or two along the way on a team starving for perimeter shooting, so much the better.
Hollinger went to work quickly. One game after Davis' injury, the Tide played at archrival Auburn
in a game that could well have been the turning point of the season. Hollinger played 36 minutes and contributed three points and three assists in an Alabama win. He was even better the next game, at Kentucky, scoring 10 points in a huge upset. His three-pointer with 3:50 to play quieted the Rupp Arena crowd, nullified an earlier Rajon Rondo three and put the Tide ahead, 63-56.
"I feel I can compete with these guys," Hollinger told the Mobile Press-Register after the win over Kentucky. "They aren't too much better than me, so why be scared?"
Hollinger's competition this season will come from his teammates. Alabama signed three freshman guards, none of whom wants to sit on the bench.
"He'll have to work on some things this year to keep those young guys from taking his minutes," Gottfried said. "At his size, he needs to really learn to handle the ball better against pressure. And his decision making as a point guard needs to improve.
"But right now, he's ahead of the freshmen. We liked him in there [the starting lineup] because we got into a groove where we were really playing well."
G Justin Tubbs (6-2, 175 lbs., FR, #3, 16.8 ppg, 3.5 apg, Trussville, HS/Trussville, Ala.)
Last season, after graduation, academic issues and defections eroded its backcourt numbers, Alabama was in dire need of shooters. Gottfried and his staff didn't want to get caught without a lot of firepower again, so they cast their recruiting dragnets for gunners. They didn't have to look far to find one -- Tubbs played his high school ball less than 75 miles away from the Alabama campus.
"Justin Tubbs is a very good shooter," Gottfried said. "We've felt like we've been a little bit limited in the guard position from the standpoint of having a guy who can stand out there and score."
Tubbs -- who shot nearly 50 percent from three-point range as a junior -- has other intriguing qualities that indicate he won't be a one-dimensional player in college. First there's his 34-inch vertical leap. Then there's his 6-foot-6 wingspan. Finally there's his 3.6 high school gpa. When Gottfried suggests that Tubbs can fatten his scoring average by going to the rack, chances are good he'll listen and be able to quickly incorporate that suggestion.
"He's coachable," Tubbs' high school coach Bo Coln told Rivals.com. "He listens to everything and absorbs it really well."
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Last season Alabama beat two teams that advanced to the Final Four, including national champion Florida, and nearly took out a third, UCLA, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. That fact wasn't lost on the Tide during the off-season.
"Knowing that we beat two of the teams in the Final Four and had a chance to beat one more, that [was] kind of a motivation for us this off-season," Steele told the Mobile Register. "We know we have the tools to get to that level."
Those tools start with Steele and Jermareo Davidson, as good an inside-outside combination as there is in the country. Throw in Richard Hendrix and Alonzo Gee, emerging stars in their own right, and Alabama has as an enviable nucleus. Depth, a concern last year, has been fortified with a solid recruiting class. Experience is the only concern.
This is a talented team that should battle LSU all season for the West Division championship, then play in the NCAA Tournament, where an extended run is likely, if for no other reason than the sheer force of Steele's will.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2006-07 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).