All-around excellence

Most of the publicity has gone to Kennedy Winston, who certainly has been tearing it up the past few games for the Tide. But the return to form of Earnest Shelton has been as big a factor as any in Bama's recent success.

Shelton's 15.2 average per game is less than two points behind Winston's, and once again he's proving deadly from long range.

"When it comes time to knock down big shots, my teammates look for that from me," Earnest Shelton said. "They count on me, so I try to knock them down."

"We were just a guy short," Mark Gottfried said, speaking of Bama's earlier five-game losing streak. "I think we are a different team with Earnest in the game. And obviously we're a lot better."

Shelton has hit on 55 three-pointers this season, tops on the team. But the biggest improvement in his game from this year to last has been his versatility. Once a jump-shooter only, now Shelton can put the ball on the floor and create when necessary.

He commented, "You're going to have nights when you can't throw a rock in the ocean, but you've still got to find a way to benefit your team, whether it's on the defensive end or creating something for somebody else. You've got to find a way to stay on the court. Find a way to help your teammates.

"I worked toward improving as an all-around player."

Merely good players are satisfied with their current talent. But the team leaders like Shelton recognize their limitations, and spend long hours trying to improve.

Shelton is still an excellent long-range shooter, but this year he has added drives to the basket and assists to his repertoire. (AP photo)

"I tried to work on my all-around game all summer," he related. "I tried to fine-tune things. Get to the hole; find a way to score; find a way to make yourself useful, even if you can't make your jump shot."

For the year Shelton is 105-of-250 in field goal attempts. Aside from Bama's two point guards, Shelton leads the team in assists with 42. On defense he's averaging 3.5 rebounds per night and has 22 steals on the year.

"Earnest scores for us but I think what also has been under-talked about is ability to defend perimeter guards," Gottfried said. "He's done a nice job this year."

Once a long-range shooter only, this season Shelton has become a complete basketball player.

"I like everybody thinking that all I can do is shoot threes," he said. "That's a benefit. They don't really think you can put the ball on the floor. They don't think you can get to the hole and finish. They don't expect you to run the court. You can catch some people off guard."

Shelton and current NBA player Mo Williams arrived at Alabama together. Consciously or not, he probably held back some his first two years, allowing the mercurial Williams to work his magic. But this year Shelton has come into his own.

"You have to be more than one-dimensional," Shelton said. "If all I could do was stand out there and shoot threes, then it would be real easy for teams to guard me. I've tried to add more to my game than just standing out there, catching and shooting."

No one will confuse him with Allen Iverson any time soon, but Shelton will now put the ball on the floor and drive by his man if the defender over-commits to his jump shot.

"You've got to make them pay," Shelton explained. "If a guy wants to run out there and jump all up under you, you've got to get to the hole. And not only get there, you've got to be able to do positive things with the ball. As a player I try to work on all those little things. Even if they do jump up in me, you break down the defense."

For Shelton's first two seasons players like Erwin Dudley and Williams handled the leadership role. But this year the junior guard found himself the grizzled veteran.

He commented, "Out of nowhere you're the veteran and you've got 7-8 young people looking up to you. I try to lead by example, work hard every day. Work hard at practice. Play defense. Defend.

Coach Gottfried also praises Shelton for his perimeter defense. (AP photo)

"Anything the team needs, I try to be a bonus for our team."

"Try" hardly does Shelton justice. Bama's late-season swoon in which the Tide lost five straight conference games pretty much coincided with Shelton's injury. But for the past week or so his strained knee ligament has been much improved, and magically so has been Alabama's on-the-court performance.

"I don't know that he's 100 percent, but he's a lot better than he was a few weeks back," Gottfried agreed. "We missed him greatly. Just like against Ole Miss the other night; he's a guy who has the potential to get 25 points.

"In our rotation of things, when we didn't have him in there, we missed his scoring."

When speaking of his junior shooting guard, Gottfried often talks about Shelton's "high basketball IQ."

"I try to think out on the court," Shelton acknowledged. "I think things through. Scouting reports and plays, I think about them and learn. I absorb things. There really aren't too many offensive plays that are too different.

"Since I'm not the most athletic player, I learn how things work and use that to my advantage."

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