Team preview: Alabama
Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2005-06 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.
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 25th anniversary 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.)
Alabama fans must have thought they'd been whisked off to a parallel universe when they heard the news one day last spring that Crimson Tide basketball coach Mark Gottfried had just been given a salary increase that would pay him more money than football coach Mike Shula.
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A basketball coach making more money than a football coach at the University of Alabama? Blasphemy. Surely Paul Bryant was rolling over in his grave.
Then again, if the canny old Bear were still alive today, he would no doubt realize how times have changed in Tuscaloosa, and around the country. No, we're not saying basketball is more important to the Tide faithful than football. That will never happen. But basketball has become big business, and Alabama's administration is well aware.
Gottfried's raise and contract extension was proof of that. So was the $35 million -- you read that correctly -- renovation of the Tide's Coleman Coliseum, in Gottfried's words a "tired, old building," that had grown obsolete by SEC standards.
The job Gottfried and his staff have done in turning Alabama into a perennial NCAA Tournament team was the catalyst behind that financial commitment. And as amused as he was when he learned he would be the first non-football coach to make the most money in Bama's athletic department, Gottfried knows his program is on a path of upward mobility, and the football program Shula inherited had hit a lull brought on by having three head coaches in less than a year after the departure of Dennis Franchione to Texas A&M, the abrupt dismissal of replacement Mike Price just a few weeks later and the hiring of Shula.
"People were certainly amused about [his pay raise] around here," Gottfried said. "But I don't look at it like I'm making more than someone. I prefer to think it's all about what we have going on here. We're not in competition with football. I pull for them as hard as anyone."
Gottfried's new contract puts him in fast company. In the SEC, his deal ranks third behind Kentucky's Tubby Smith ($2.5 million average annually) and Florida's Billy Donovan ($1.7 million). Only three SEC schools pay their basketball coach more than their football coach. Kentucky and Vanderbilt are the others.
The renovation of Coleman in many ways is more important to Gottfried's program than his increased salary and job security (his deal runs through 2011).
"It's proof that Alabama wants to be a contender," Gottfried said. "And it's already helped us in recruiting."
Indeed, recent Alabama recruits have donned hard hats to tramp through the construction site. Gottfried and his staff love to show off their new offices, weight room, locker room and video room. The concourse of the arena was gutted and replaced, and a reception area/club room was installed above the court. The building's seating capacity will be reduced slightly, but there's nothing wrong with making a basketball game a little tougher ticket to get. If all goes well, Coleman will re-open in time for 'Bama's season opener.
The news wasn't all positive in the off-season. Three-year stalwart Kennedy Winston gave up his final year of eligibility to declare for the NBA draft, and wasn't taken. And a player Gottfried and his staff recruited to help offset the loss of Winston, junior college guard Ravone George, didn't qualify academically.
Still, Gottfried is happy with his program's place in the world.
"I'd like to think that we are a team that's going to be considered on a national level one of the top teams in the country," he said. "We're a team that expects to go to the NCAA Tournament. Whether we are good enough or not to, we'll find out, but that's certainly my goal. And I think nationally there is a perception that our team is a Top 20 team year in and year out right now."
Alabama coaches knew what they had in Ron Steele well before the rookie showed up on campus last year. The rest of the world got clued in after Alabama's sixth game of the season, against East Tennessee State, a team that had given Wake Forest and Cincinnati first-round fits in the previous two NCAA Tournaments. Despite having to guard ETSU's pesky point guard Tim Smith all game, Steele turned in a night's work for the ages, at least as far as Alabama players are concerned. Steele passed for 18 assists, a school record and one shy of the SEC standard. That was impressive enough as it was, but considering Steele didn't commit a turnover, his performance was mind-blowing.
"Eighteen assists and zero turnovers?" asked an incredulous ETSU coach Murry Bartow after the game. "What more can you ask of your point guard?"
As it turned out, Gottfried asked a lot more of Steele, and the youngster delivered. He led the SEC in assists and, more important, assists to turnovers (2.46-to-1). He also paced Alabama in free throw shooting. By every barometer of a point guard's worth, Steele was a smash hit.
"Phenomenal," was Gottfried's succinct appraisal of Steele's first season.
Steele was only the third freshman in Alabama history to start his first game at the point (Ennis Whatley in 1982 and Mo Williams in 2002 were the others), but as his numbers suggest, he didn't play like a freshman. Steele was an easy pick for the SEC's All-Freshman team, but he was also a third-team All-SEC pick by the league's coaches, who were clearly impressed.
"I'm a huge Ronald Steele fan,'' Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said before his team played the Tide last January. "He is a great player, and for the last three years I thought Alabama's point guard play would get worse after Mo Williams. I think Ronald Steele is obviously playing great basketball. He knows how to win and he makes winning plays.''
Steele will have to make a lot more winning plays this season. In addition to running the show, he's going to be asked to look for his shot more often. And he's also going to be asked not to get tired, or get in foul trouble. Alabama has no experienced backups. Steele could lead the country in minutes played.
Again, the numbers suggest Steele can handle anything Gottfried asks. While departed teammates Shelton and Winston were scoring most of the points, Steele quietly shot 43 percent from three-point range. He obviously got more open looks than he will this season, but Steele isn't a guy to force the issue; he shoots when there are no better options. This season, Gottfried will ask Steele to hoist it more often.
"We'll ask him to step up and be a little bit more aggressive [seeking his own shot]," Gottfried said. "We need him to score more."
That's a job Steele will be able to handle.
Jean Felix's role became more vital to the Tide in August, when Gottfried learned junior college recruit Ravone George would be academically ineligible. Gottfried hoped George could take over for the graduated Earnest Shelton at the shooting guard spot and also give Steele some relief minutes at the point.
The loss of George means Felix will probably assume the starting two-guard role, allowing Gottfried to put his best frontcourt lineup on the floor. If Felix doesn't play small forward, that should mean heralded freshman Richard Hendrix will start from day one.
It's a misnomer that junior college transfers can provide a quick fix in a league as competitive as the SEC. It took Felix a while to find his way last season, and it didn't help matters that he was playing behind Kennedy Winston. But once Felix earned his way into Gottfried's regular rotation, he became a valuable reserve, capable of scoring (season-high tying 13 points versus Mississippi State) and rebounding (career-high eight against Florida) against the SEC's better teams. His best overall performance in the league came in a 16-minute outing against Ole Miss when he scored 12 points (on three-of-three shooting from three-point range) and grabbed five rebounds.
Felix led Tide regulars in three-point percentage. That skill will serve him well at the two spot, as will another talent that has Gottfried raving.
"He loves to guard people," Gottfried said. "I truly believe he can be one of the best wing defenders in the United States. He's long, athletic, he loves contact and he's got a fire in his belly to play defense. We think he can have a great year for us."
Just like Gottfried and his staff did a year earlier, when they signed Ron Steele, they landed the best high school player in talent-rich Alabama when they signed Richard Hendrix last November. And just like Steele, Hendrix comes ready made for the rigors of SEC basketball. Chances are good he'll start from day one, just as Steele did.
"When we first got Erwin Dudley," Gottfried said, referring to a former Tide star of recent vintage, "he was 218 pounds. We had to work to get him to 250. This kid [Hendrix] comes in here at 265. He's physically farther along than most of the guys we sign here."
Hendrix, one of the most highly regarded recruits of the Gottfried era, comes with all the requisite accolades. He was chosen to the Parade and McDonald's All-American teams and was a consensus top five national recruit. In his home state, Hendrix was chosen Mr. Basketball and also the Class 5A Player of the Year.
Hendrix leaves the high school ranks with a pile of state and school records in his wake. He's Alabama's all-time prep leader in career rebounds (1,820) and blocked shots (667). Hendrix is also Athens High School's all-time leading scorer (2,915 points), rebounder and shot blocker and holds the school record for consecutive starts. It'll be a while before a player comes along to surpass Hendrix's school record of nine career triple-doubles and 92 double-doubles.
Big as he is, Hendrix isn't the classic wide body, low-post behemoth type. He's got a face-up game with range to about 16 feet. Make no mistake though -- no one's going to push Hendrix around.
"He comes to us highly decorated," Gottfried said. "But he has the potential to get so much better."
And he'll get the playing time to get so much better. Just as Steele had to play 30-plus minutes a game last season, so will Hendrix this year. He and LSU forward Tasmin Mitchell should wage a nice battle to see who will become the SEC's Freshman of the Year.
Few players in the SEC have improved their game and increased their contributions to their team as much as Chuck Davis. From less than humble beginnings in his freshman season -- during which he got into just 13 games and considered transferring -- Davis has made himself into an All-SEC forward and a player worthy of being selected to the John Wooden Preseason Top 50 list. He's become one of the league's premier low-post scoring threats and defenders and is so important to the Crimson Tide. Gottfried is wary about playing him alongside Hendrix, even though Alabama's best lineup would surely include both players.
"Chuck is such a good low-post player that I don't want to take him away from his strength," Gottfried said. "But there will be times when we have to play those guys together, maybe even start them."
It's easy to see why Gottried doesn't want to upset the delicate balance in his frontcourt. Davis has become a monster on the low blocks. SEC statistics tell the story: Last season, Davis was 13th in the league in scoring, seventh in rebounding, eighth in free throw percentage and first in blocked shots (62). He would have led the league in rebounding but barely missed out on the made field goals per game requirement. The minimum is five per game; Davis averaged 4.8.
Davis is an effective two-way player, but it's on the offensive end where he excels. He's fun to watch when he gets the ball in scoring position? How will he do his damage? Any way he wants. Davis is quicker than taller, bigger defenders and stronger and more athletic than smaller defenders. His other weapon is free throw shooting; all the better to pad his scoring average. Last season he attempted 173 free throws, second (to LSU forward Brandon Bass's 188) among the SEC's top ten free throw shooters.
After his freshmen year spent playing behind Erwin Dudley and Kenny Walker, Davis did a bit of soul searching and instead of leaving the program, decided to stay and compete for more PT. As a sophomore, he started 32-of-33 games and his minutes per game increased from 6.6 to 28.7. Alabama fans got a glimpse of what Davis can do in the Tide's improbable 2004 run to the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight. Davis scored 19 in an upset of defending national champion Syracuse and came back with 24 points and nine boards against eventual national champion UConn.
Last season, Davis' minutes increased again, and despite the fact Winston and Shelton were the top scoring options, he managed to get his points. He scored 24 against Tennessee State, 23 against Washington and 18 against South Carolina. In the heat of SEC season, Davis reached double figures in nine straight games from late February to early March.
Davis is also adept at picking the backboards clean for rebounds other players wouldn't work hard enough to reach, boards that lead to garbage baskets. He grabbed 13 rebounds against Tennessee, 12 against Tennessee State (which he also victimized for an SEC season-high seven blocked shots) and 11 against Temple.
SEC coaches were noticing. They chose him second-team all-conference. This year, Davis should be first-team All-SEC. He's on Blue Ribbon's preseason All-SEC team.
"Chuck is a guy that's become very important to the success of our team," Gottfried said. "As good as he's been, we're counting on him to do even more for us this year."
Last June 21 was a good day for Alabama basketball, and it will ultimately prove to be a good day for Jermareo Davidson, too. That was the day cooler heads obviously prevailed and Davidson, who had entered his name into the NBA draft pool, withdrew without penalty. He was smart enough not to hire an agent and thus didn't fall into the same trap that so many other good SEC players did. Six underclassmen from league teams declared for the draft and kept their names in the pool past the NBA's June deadline.
None of the six, including Davidson's former teammate Kennedy Winston, were drafted.
Davidson clearly would have joined that list had he hired an agent. There doesn't seem to be too much call for 213-pound post players in the NBA.
"I'm excited for him personally," Gottfried said when he learned of Davidson's decision. "I think it's the right decision. I always want what's best for our players. I think this gives him the chance to continue to develop, as he has done the past two years. It's also important to note he's on track to graduate within his four years here."
Davidson's role will change considerably this season. Instead of being the Tide's fifth option as a scorer, he's going to have to produce more on the offensive end. He's already proven he can do that, and in some hostile places. Twice last year Davidson scored a career-high 21 points, at Charlotte and Vanderbilt. The road didn't hamper Davidson's ability to get to the boards, either. He grabbed a personal best 14 rebounds at Auburn and Tennessee.
If Davidson, who's working on a streak of 60 consecutive starts, can come anywhere close to those numbers on a regular basis, Gottfried would be beyond pleased.
"I think Jermareo is the first guy that needs to take his game to another level," Gottfried said. "We talked about that all spring, all summer. He has been a starter, but at the same time, last year he scored in double figures seven times. He needs to be much better this year."
Davidson, who earned third-team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press last season, seems willing. He put in a lot of work over the summer and will report to fall practice in the best shape of his life. He's more of a finesse player than a banger, and won't overpower anyone in the paint. But Davidson does have a nice jump hook and a face-up game. Defensively, he blocked 46 shots as a freshman and 47 last season.
It's fair to say Davidson is a huge key to Alabama's success this season. If he's ready to deliver double figures in points and boards on a regular basis, Alabama won't miss Winston and Shelton nearly as much.
Evan Brock has labored in relative obscurity during his time at Alabama, save for the occasional monster dunk that gets replayed on ESPN. This year, the lanky senior will be asked to step out of the shadows and make significant contributions.
"Evan needs to be more productive offensively," Gottfried said. "We already know he can defend. He's long and athletic; he should be able to score a little more."
There isn't much proof of Brock's scoring ability on his resume. He didn't reach double figures once last season, and in fact has done so just once in his career (13 points versus Southeastern Louisiana in 2003). But given increased playing time, Brock should be able to produce like he did in 25 minutes against Ole Miss last season. In that game, Brock scored a season-high seven points, grabbed six rebounds, made two steals and blocked a shot. His dunk on a fast break ignited Alabama's home crowd and started a 25-9 run.
"Tonight it was Evan Brock," Gottfried said after the game. "He got some offensive rebounds and just gave us a spark."
Brock might have inherited that flair for the dramatic from his father Ernie, who played for the Harlem Globetrotters, but Gottfried wouldn't mind if Brock was just solid, as he was in the Tide's Elite Eight run in 2004. Brock made four straight free throws in an upset of Stanford, and came up with five boards in a win over defending national champion Syracuse.
The aptly named Yamene Coleman is another in a long line of rangy, athletic Alabama post players who join the program a bit undersized. Most of those players bulked up under the direction of the program's unparalleled strength and conditioning staff and became highly productive. Some, like Derrick McKey, Robert Horry and Roy Rogers, wound up in the NBA.
Gottfried thinks Coleman can become that good.
"He's one of those kids that, once he gets in your system, eats three square meals a day, gets stronger, he's got a chance to be good," Gottfried said.
Coleman's Wilcox Central team was a perennial Alabama 5A championship contender during his time there. The school won the state title in 2003 and advanced to the 5A Final Four the next two years.
Coleman will be counted on to play right away as a backup to Jermareo Davidson.
Knowing that Earnest Shelton was graduating and that Kennedy Winston was probably headed to the NBA after his junior season, Gottfried and his staff sought to bring in some replacement firepower. The coaches had Alonzo Gee ranked as high in the scoring department as any player on their recruiting board.
That Gee turned up on Alabama's wish list had much to do with the summer of 2004, during which, largely through AAU basketball, Gee went from little-known role player to a star. He helped cement that status last spring by leading Dwyer to its second consecutive Class 5A championship. In April, he scored a team-high 18 points and combined with Duke signee Greg Paulus to lead the Gold team to victory in the Derby Festival in Louisville, Ky.
"He's very mobile, can score and is a good, solid player," Gottfried said. "He's another one of those guys that's going to have to step up and be ready to play."
He started his Alabama career as a walk-on in 2003-04, and after a red-shirt season was awarded a scholarship. Like Antoine Pettway before him, Justin Jonus has a chance to take that scholarship and run with it.
That's partly because Alabama is painfully thin in the backcourt, but also partly because Jonus can shoot. And Alabama desperately needs shooters. Though his freshman shooting percentages didn't show it -- mainly because his playing time was sporadic -- Jonus has the tools to put the ball in the hole, as evidenced by his high school numbers. Playing for his father at Douglas High School, Jonus racked up 2,343 points, ninth best in Alabama prep history.
When Jonus did get a chance at extended playing time in his rookie year, he showed what he was capable of doing. In a rout of East Tennessee State, Jonus made 5-of-9 shots and scored a career-high 14 points to go along with a career-high six rebounds. He never got to double figures the rest of the season, but once the Tide reached SEC play, Jonus' minutes were reduced. Of his 228 minutes played, 128 of them came in the first five weeks of the season.
Jonus will probably get all the PT he can handle this time around.
In anticipation of that, Jonus spent a lot of time in the weight room in the off-season, and says, Gotffried, it shows.
"He was always a good shooter," Gottfried said. "And now he's gotten a little taller and a little stronger, too. I think with more opportunity to play, you'll see him become a contributor."
One of the keys to Alabama's recent success has been the ability of Gottfried and his staff to mine talent-rich Alabama for high school talent. That includes blue-chip players and those a bit less heralded. Brandon Hollinger fits into the later category, even though he was chosen the state's 2005 6A Player of the Year.
"We have done well with guys in our state that may not have been ranked by the experts that high but develop into very good SEC players," Gottfried said. "Brandon is a very good ball handler and shooter and is extremely quick. He will add depth in our backcourt and won't back down from anyone."
Last season Hollinger led perennial state power LeFlore to the finals of the 6A state championship, a 35-1 record and No. 2 national ranking. Gottfried thinks back to his days as a UCLA assistant to find an appropriate comparison for Hollinger's skills.
"Brandon is a fierce competitor," Gottfried said. "He knows how to win and has been very well coached. He reminds me of [former UCLA point guard] Tyus Edney." Given 'Bama's shortage of guards, Hollinger needs to take his Edney impersonation to the floor, and quickly.
Questions: Backcourt depth? Injuries or foul trouble could make life difficult for the Tide. Point guard Ron Steele better not count on much rest this season.
Firepower? Who will help replace the lost offensive contributions of Earnest Shelton and Kennedy Winston?
Answers: Front line! With freshman Richard Hendrix joining Chuck Davis and Jemareo Davidson, the Crimson Tide can put the SEC's most talented front line on the floor.
Ron Steele! Steele turned in as flawless a season at the point as a freshman could, and he'll only get better.
Mark Gottfried has built a program at Alabama, one strong enough to withstand some transfers and the loss of a key recruit. The Crimson Tide won't have much depth this year, but because of its front-line talent is still Blue Ribbon's pick to win the SEC's Western Division.
Consider that the Tide has the division's best power forward and point guard, plus one of the SEC's two best freshmen (along with LSU's Tasmin Mitchell) in forward Richard Hendrix. Add in some capable component parts (swingman Jean Felix, center Jemareo Davidson) and Alabama can put a very good starting five on the floor.
Where the Tide could run into problems is when Gottfried has to turn to his bench. All five scholarship players that don't win starting jobs will be counted on for major contributions.
Then again, four of Alabama's starters last season averaged between 33 and 34 minutes a game, and Davidson averaged 25. The Tide got lucky with injuries and didn't need a lot of depth. If that's the case again this season, Alabama can win the West. An injury, or foul trouble in a key SEC game, could knock the Tide down a notch or two in the balanced Western Division's standings. But this is still a team that will have to play its way out of another NCAA Tournament berth.
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