One reason for the early start is that Saturday is homecoming at Alabama, and part of the festivities include Mark Gottfried, this year's Grand Marshall, being in the homecoming parade, which begins at 9 a.m.
Alabama is coming off a special season. The 2004 Bama team seemed to be going nowhere after a mid-February home loss to Vanderbilt dropped the Crimson Tide record to 12-10. "We were very average most of the time last season," Gottfried said.
But then Alabama went on the road and upset highly-regarded Mississippi State and continued with a road win at Auburn. After a home win against Ole Miss, the Tide went back on the road and defeated Arkansas. A win over Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference Tournament after an 8-8 record in SEC play propelled Bama into the NCAA Tournament.
And in the national tournament, Alabama made its mark. The Crimson Tide was truly the Cinderella team of the NCAA Tournament. After sneaking by Southern Illinois, Bama upset number one ranked Stanford and then eliminated defending national champion Syracuse. The clock didn't strike midnight until Alabama went up against eventual national champion Connecticut.
And with four starters, including All-SEC performer Kennedy Winston returning, it is not surprising that Alabama is getting national attention in pre-season publications.
Gottfried has read all of those publications. And, he said, "I'm not sold on us as a top 20 team."
The Tide coach said, "We were 17-11 [it was actually 17-12] going into the tournament. We have to get a lot better. If you have three or four good games in the NCAA Tournament, then expectations rise. We did finish well, and that's good. But this is a completely different team, and I have some real questions."
Well, it's not a completely different team. Expectations rise not only because of the nice run towards the end of regular season and in the NCAA Tournament, but also because four starters are back from that team that eventually finished 20-13.
Still, Gottfried said, the one who was lost was Antoine Pettway, the former walk-on who took over at point guard when Mo Williams unexpectedly left Bama for the NBA after two seasons. Gottfried said, "We won some games last year that gave our team confidence. But the guy making the plays that won a lot of those games was Antoine Pettway. He has become the biggest void I've had in a long time from the standpoints of leadership and a player able to make big plays."
Gottfried said the biggest question mark about this team is at point guard. True freshmen Ronald Steele (6-2, 185) and Albert Weber (6-2, 175) are the candidates at point guard. "It's my second time to have a true freshman at point guard," Gottfried said. "The first was Mo Williams in 2002 and he did a good job. This year we'll have two freshmen at point and last year we had two seniors (Pettway, who averaged 9.1 points and 3.5 assists per game, and Demetrius Smith). And that's the biggest question about this team."
Gottfried is optimistic about Steele and Weber. "They are good players who pass the ball well," the coach said. "They both play the point, but I think they will play some together." That would fit with Gottfried's past philosophy of having guards who are both point and wing players.
Almost no one would compare Steele to Williams, Gottfried said. "Mo had a lot more hype and attention. He went to the ABCD camp and was the most valuable player. Ronald went to the same camp and I'll bet most people who were there didn't even notice him. He's better with his team. That's why they were 66-3 and won back-to-back state championships at the 6A level his last two years."
Gottfried said the second biggest question is the health of junior small forward Kennedy Winston (6-6, 230). Winston injured a knee last year, had post-season arthroscopic surgery in the summer, and has been slow to recover. Winston averaged 17.1 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last year.
"I'm hoping he'll be 100 per cent in November or December, but for sure by January," Gottfried said of Winston. "He is not right now. He is going to try to make it from start to finish in practice Saturday. He needs that work for conditioning and timing. But he can't do it for two or three days in a row. We'll monitor it closely and manage him so it doesn't flare up."
Gottfried said another question is in the post. "I felt we were a post player short last year," he said. He did say that all returning players had worked hard in the off-season, staying in Tuscaloosa throughout the summer, and that the newcomers had all been on campus for at least half the summer. He said strength and conditioning was good.
Starting inside players returning are junior forward Chuck Davis (6-7, 230), who averaged 11.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.2 blocked shots per game, and sophomore center Jermareo Davidson (6-10, 210), who averaged 5.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks, and was Freshman All-SEC.
Last year Evan Brock (6-8, 205) was used as a back-up post player. But, Gottfried said, "He's not really a post player. He's a wing."
Gottfried is hoping that two players who were redshirted freshmen last year can help in the post. They are Akini Adkins (6-8, 210) and Shawn Taylor (6-10, 185).
Speaking of redshirts, Gottfried said, "I think another guy who can figure in is Justin Jonus. He really shoots it well." Jonus is a 6-5, 210-pound wing player who is a walk-on.
One area that is not a question mark is wing guard, where Earnest Shelton (6-3, 215) is back for his senior season. Shelton averaged 15.8 points despite being limited with an injury part of last season.
Gottfried said newcomer Jean Felix, a 6-7, 205-pound transfer from Bevill State Junior College in Sumiton, "is a guy who can play into our system at wing. He's not a post player, but he's bigger and stronger than the typical wing player, so can he can help in rebounding when we play four perimeter players."
Gottfried said he expects Arkansas to be the surprise team in the SEC next season. He said that the top teams in the SEC Western Division are LSU and Mississippi State. Gottfried said, "Mississippi State has the player of the year in Lawrence Roberts. Guys like him don't usually stick around [for a final year of college]." In the East, Gottfried said Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith had his best recruiting year ever and that Florida "has pretty much everyone back."