- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Alabama coach Mark Gottfried already has a contingency plan if something happens to sophomore point guard Ronald Steele this season.
"If for some reason he goes down, I'm pulling out my hanky and waving it," Gottfried said. "He's that good and that valuable for us."
Steele might be the most important point guard in his stellar class, a class that also could have had Sebastian Telfair (Louisville signee) and Shaun Livingston (Duke signee) had they not bolted for the NBA straight out of high school.
Steele essentially has no other ball handlers next to him on the wing, the team being more a collection of glorified forwards after the departures of Earnest Shelton and Kennedy Winston and the inability of JC signee Ray George to gain eligibility.
Look at the support the others in the elite class have: Kentucky's Rajon Rondo has Joe Crawford and Patrick Sparks. Texas' Daniel Gibson can lean a bit on Kenton Paulino and A.J. Abrams. Memphis' Darius Washington has help from Andre Allen and Antonio Anderson. UCLA's Jordan Farmar can get help from former point guard Cedric Bozeman, now a wing, and wing Aaron Afflalo.
Steele? Well, the Tide recently tried Chuck Davis at the point.
"I did decently," Davis said with a bit of a chuckle. "But I don't know how we could do this without him. He scores for us, gets us into our offense and understands the game."
We're not trying to diminish the importance of those other nine point guards. All are critical to their teams' fortunes and might leap ahead of Steele in any All-American honors. With Rondo around, Steele may not even land first-team All-SEC. The reality, though, is that Steele essentially is alone, with Davis, Jermareo Davidson, Richard Hendrix and wings Jean Felix and Alonzo Gee lacking lead-guard dribbling skill.
"This has been an adjustment coming from last year, where I had two experienced players on the wing," Steele said of Shelton and Winston. "Coach wants me to handle the ball as much as possible."
"About 99 percent of the time," Gottfried said.
Gottfried said he's even considering putting a yellow shirt on Steele in practice -- similar to how football teams preserve quarterbacks -- so players take it easy on him.
Steele's poise at the position helped contribute to his 7.9 points and 5.0 assists a game last season. But with Winston (17.9 ppg) and Shelton (16.3 ppg) scoring and Davis (13.9 ppg) and Davidson (7.6 ppg) contributing too, Steele didn't need to produce as many points.
This season, the onus will be on him to produce much more, but Gottfried is not worried.
"Last year he started out going against East Tennessee State's Timmy Smith with 18 NBA scouts there, and Steele had 18 assists and no turnovers," Gottfried said. "That doesn't happen too often.
"I thought that year out of high school, Telfair [and] Livingston would go pro and that if you had Darius Washington, Steele, Farmar, Gibson and Ron, that I thought Ron was as good or better than all of them, because of the way he shoots and plays."
Memphis coach John Calipari, however, notes that Washington has improved in his ability to score and in getting his teammates involved. Ohio coach Tim O'Shea is convinced Fears is worthy of inclusion.
"He belongs in this group," O'Shea said. "He led his team to the NCAA Tournament. He still has to prove he can knock down the 3-point shot, but he's got room to grow. The question is, 'Can Jeremy be the next Antonio Daniels out of the MAC?' But he's got great physical tools, maybe more so than Neitzel."
You can't really go wrong with anyone in this bunch. One thing's for sure, though: If the debate is over which lead guard is the least dispensable to his own team, it could be Steele in a landslide.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.