After a second-round loss in the NCAA tournament last season, No. 11 Alabama has set its sights higher for this season heading into its opener Friday at home against Jackson State.
The Crimson Tide went 18-13 last season, which ended with a 62-59 loss to eventual NCAA tournament runner-up UCLA as point guard Ronald Steele missed a potential game-tying jumper in the final seconds.
Steele, arguably the best returning point guard in the nation, spent most of his summer in the weight room after averaging 38.4 minutes per game last season, including an SEC-high 40.3 minutes in conference play.
“A lot of times I kind of wore down at the end of the game,” said Steele, a junior who averaged a team-high 14.3 points and shot 41.2 percent from 3-point range.
The Tide enter with their highest preseason ranking since opening the 2002-03 season No. 8. That squad however, lost 11 of its last 17 games after an 11-1 start and made a first-round exit from the NCAA tournament.
Still, coach Mark Gottfried would rather face high expectations than none at all.
“I think it’s good for the recognition of our program, but at the same time, I don’t know that it matters in the here and now, just today, with our team,” said Gottfried, who led Alabama to the No. 1 ranking in the AP poll for two weeks in December 2002. “We’ve got a long way to go to become a good basketball team. But it is nice for the recognition, and, hopefully we can play well enough throughout the year to truly earn that.”
A key reason for the high hopes of the Tide is the frontcourt pair of Jermareo Davidson and Richard Hendrix. Davidson, an All-SEC selection last season along with Steele, averaged 14.3 points and a team-high 8.9 rebounds, while Hendrix contributed 9.4 points and 8.0 boards per game as a freshman.
Gottfried is expecting big things from the 6-8 Hendrix with a full season under his belt.
“He’s done a great job this offseason,” Gottfried said. “He got himself in great condition. He made himself much bigger, stronger. He’s way ahead of where he was a year ago as far his mental (know-how). He understands everything. We’re excited about where he is right now.”
Sophomores Alonzo Gee and Brandon Hollinger round out Alabama’s starting five. Gee was third on the team with 24 3-pointers last season and averaged 8.6 points, while Hollinger—who scored only 69 points in 30 games—will be counted on to help Steele with ballhandling duties.
Jackson State will again look to Trey Johnson to lead the way as it tries to improve on last season’s 15-17 record. Johnson, the Southwestern Athletic Conference preseason player of the year, was 10th in the nation in scoring last season at 23.5 points per game and made 44.1 percent (67-for-152) from 3-point range.
One player who is not returning for the Tigers is guard Charlie White, who averaged 7.8 points last season. He was suspended for a shooting incident on campus Sept. 22 before school president Ronald Mason denied his appeal last month.
“This is a very unfortunate incident,” said Tigers coach Tevester Anderson. “Charlie is a very good person, however, we have to abide by university policies and procedures.”
Since the start of the 1996-97 season, Jackson State is 0-16 against Top 25 opponents, losing by an average of 30.6 points and allowing 91.4 points in those games. The Tigers played only one ranked opponent last season, losing 97-70 at Memphis.
This is the second straight year the teams are playing, and Alabama rolled to a 101-66 win last season as Hendrix and Davidson combined for 45 points and 23 rebounds. The Tide shot 59.4 percent from the field, including 76 percent (38-for-50) from inside the arc.