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SATURDAY, JANUARY 6, 2007
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Others step up as Steele mends for No. 8 Tide

By Josh Cooper
jcooper@decaturdaily.com ∑ 340-2460

The moments have come often this year.

Alabama point guard Ronald Steele sees an opening to the basket, and his mind tells him "go, go" but his bad ankle and knee scream, "Stop!"

"I try not to think, but sometimes I see a gap where I would normally attack, but I can't do it physically or have the strength to do it," Steele said.

Such are the problems that the Tide's preseason All-American point guard has faced all season.

Tendonitis in Steele's left knee and a sprained left ankle suffered against Notre Dame on Dec. 7 have forced him to miss three early season games.

While the 6-foot-3 guard says he feels about 75 percent, the Tide will need Steele healthy if it wants to compete not just for an SEC championship, but a national championship.

The Tide takes another step on the road Saturday when eighth-ranked Alabama (13-1) opens its Southeastern Conference schedule at Arkansas (11-3) at 1 p.m.

"It's frustrating at times, knowing that at full speed I can make the game better for everyone," Steele said. "It's hard because usually injuries like these, you take time off and get better. You have to balance to stay in game condition. It's kind of difficult."

Two of the players have helped pick up Steele — sophomore forwards Alonzo Gee and Richard Hendrix.

Gee earned most valuable player honors when Alabama won the Paradise Jam Tournament in St. Thomas. In addition, he led the team in scoring until the last game against Oklahoma when Hendrix overtook him.

Since Hendrix's big game against Alabama State, when the 6-foot-8 Athens High graduate scored a career-high 34 points, he has averaged 19.2 points and 10.3 rebounds.

Deflecting credit, Hendrix almost always passes it along to his teammates for feeding him the ball, even though it's his size and skill that give Alabama such an advantage in the low post.

"It is what it is," Hendrix said. "I come out every night to contribute."

Hendrix has had to help make up for the struggles of starting center Jermareo Davidson, who has dealt with two personal tragedies in the pre-conference season.

His girlfriend, Nikki Murphy, died in a car crash Nov. 11 when he and she traveled back to Alabama from Atlanta.

They had gone there to visit his brother, Dewayne Watkins, who was in an Atlanta hospital after a sustaining a gunshot to his head.

His brother died Dec. 20.

"Playing basketball has helped me get away from things and relax," Davidson said. "Being with my teammates and laughing, it helped me out a lot."

In Alabama's last game, against Oklahoma, Davidson picked up 17 points and six rebounds, and starting Saturday with SEC play, Alabama will need Davidson more than ever.

The conference has morphed into a big man's league, and Arkansas has followed the trend with 7-footer Steven Hill (5.4 points, 2.9 blocked shots a game) at center.

"I think the SEC has some of the best big men in the country from top to bottom," Hendrix said. "You have to be ready to play every night."

5 things to watch out for in Alabama

  • Point guard Ronald Steele has battled knee and ankle injuries all season. First, tendonitis in his knee slowed him, followed by a sprained ankle. That helped turn him into an almost ordinary point guard from his preseason All-America status. Most of his points have come on jump shots, and he hasnít looked the same driving to the basket.

  • To say that center Jermareo Davidson has gone through a difficult time the past two months is an understatement. First, Davidsonís girlfriend died in a car crash. Second, his brother died. Alabama coach Mark Gottfried says that being on the court serves as a release for Davidson, where he can concentrate on the simpler part of life. Alabama needs him to do so in a big way if it wants to succeed in SEC play.

  • Itís obvious that the SEC has become a big manís league. With Alabamaís front-court duo of the 6-foot-10 Davidson and Athens High graduate Richard Hendrix, who is 6-8, 268 pounds, Alabama can match up with the likes of LSUís Glen Davis and Floridaís Joakim Noah. But more than anything, the battles between the Tide and some of the teams with larger front courts will look similar to those of the Big East in the 1980s.

  • Itís not a game until sophomore Alonzo Gee dunks. The athletic 6-foot-6 wing man averages 14.8 points a game, and while the team doesnít keep statistics on how many acrobatic jams he throws down a game, it must be close to half a dozen. Gee along with fellow second-year man Hendrix have picked up the slack for Alabama with Steeleís injury and Davidsonís personal struggles.

  • Alabama might be the most talented team in the SEC Western Division. The eighth-ranked Tide only has slipped once this year — a loss at Notre Dame. Still, Alabama has gone through a schedule that has been a little soft. The SEC schedule will give the Crimson Tide a chance to show if it really is as good as the preseason hype.

    Josh Cooper, Daily Sports Writer

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