Quick, during which of the last two seasons did Alabama have a better record?
Before answering, fans would be wise to remember the following two facts:
1) In 05-06, the Crimson Tide overcame a midseason knee injury to big man Chuck Davis, and led by point guard Ronald Steele regrouped to a 10-6 SEC record and NCAA berth (defeating Marquette 90-85 and pushing eventual national runner-up UCLA before losing 62-59).
2) The 06-07 Tide was a chic preseason pick for the F4 and even reached a national ranking of #4 during early December. But after starting 13-1, injuries to Steele railroaded the promising season, ultimately culminating in a first round NIT loss to UMass.
So it should be a little surprising that the 06-07 Tide ended with a record of 20-12, while Coach Gottfried’s previous edition was only 18-13. This illustrates how expectations define perceptions. Little was expected of the 05-06 Tide after all-SEC first-teamer Davis got hurt, so Bama’s subsequent run to the NCAAs and defensive standoff with the Mighty Bruins in R2 engendered the perception that Bama had a successful season. Conversely, last year’s squad was burdened with high expectations from the beginning, and even though the team managed to get 20 wins without the services of a healthy Ronald Steele, the 06-07 season was deemed a failure.
Which brings us to the news today that Ronald Steele will be redshirting the 07-08 season to rehab his knees, and the value of the heady point guard to this team.
Consider Steele’s numbers and resultant effect on the Tide’s fortunes in the 05-06 season:
Steele Steps Up. As you can see rather starkly, Steele (and Bama’s) fortunes rose considerably in 05-06 after Chuck Davis’s injury. Despite only a small rise in minutes played (Steele was a veritable ironman that year), his key stats increased across the board – most notably, his scoring and shooting percentages were considerably better in Davis’s absence.
Unfortunately for Alabama, 06-07 was a lesson in the importance of one player. Steele gamely played through injuries to his ankles and knees, but the ironman of the previous season was no longer available. In twelve of Bama’s thirty-two games, Steele either did not play or played well below 30 minutes. Even in the games where he played starter minutes, he wasn’t nearly as effective. Here are his stats for 06-07:
Lack of Explosion. It’s easy to see where Steele’s “explosive” stats dropped in 06-07 – PPG (he could no longer get to the rim and finish); RPG (he couldn’t jump); SPG (he couldn’t cut off passing lanes); FG% (less athleticism = tougher shots). But it’s also apparent of his value as the Bama floor leader in the wins/losses column. Bama was 13-7 with a less-than-healthy Steele in the lineup, and the 06-07 nonconference schedule wasn’t exactly Clemson-lite either – the Tide went 4-1 against Iowa, Xavier, NC State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma. The harshest evidence of his steadying influence comes, however, when looking at how Bama finished the season – as Steele missed games and played sparingly during the last few weeks, the Tide limped into March losing five of its last six games.
Mark Gottfried is facing a difficult situation in 07-08 without his all-american point guard, but all is not completely lost. At least this year Alabama will know to move forward without Steele in the lineup, thereby giving other players a chance to step up much as he did two years ago upon Chuck Davis’s injury. Forwards Alonzo Gee and Richard Hendrix provide an athletic pair of wings, and Brandon Hollinger and Rico Pickett may yet prove capable in the backcourt. Even so, it’s difficult for us to believe that Bama will be able to overcome an injury to a player of this importance enough to make the NCAAs. Yet another tough break for Gottfried and Bama basketball.