Tide a more balanced team this year

Led by Head Coach Mark Gottfried, currently in his fourth season at his alma mater, the Tide men's basketball team has made a good start. Standing 11-2 and ranked as high as 18th in the nation, Alabama is just about exactly where its head coach wanted to be, heading into the start of the SEC schedule.

"We've got balance on our team this year, and that's good," Gottfried said. "I think we've got five guys averaging in double-figures."

Technically only four, coach, as freshman point guard Mo Williams' number is 9.9 per game. But the other four starters, Rod Grizzard (14.7), Erwin Dudley (13.4), Terrance Meade (12.6) and Kenny Walker (10.9), are all solidly in double-figures. And Travis Stinnett, Antoine Pettway and Earnest Shelton are all genuine scoring threats off the bench.

The Tide attack amounts to a "pick your poison" for defenses, forcing opposing coaches to guess which Bama player will be hot on any given night. "We've had a lot of different guys scoring for us," Gottfried said. "And that's what you want."

Averaging 9.9 points and five assists per game, Mo Williams has made Bama a more complete team offensively.

Once again guard/forward Rod Grizzard leads the team in scoring. The 6-8 versatile athlete can run hot and cold. But when he's on his game, "Rocket Rod" is as exciting as any player in the conference.

However, it's the big man in the middle that sets the tone for this Alabama team. Erwin Dudley has added muscle to his 6-8 frame, but the forward/center still has his feathery-soft shooting touch on the inside. "Our team follows Erwin's lead a little bit," Gottfried said. "They watch Erwin and how he goes about his job every day."

Dudley is 82-of-137 in shooting, for a .599 shooting average. Good enough to lead the SEC at this point in the season.

With only one senior seeing any action at all, the Tide is a junior-laden team in 2001-02. Gottfried explained; "Our team is unique in that we've got the five juniors, and they've all played. They've played plenty of college basketball now. Collectively they've been a group that wants to get something done together."

Dudley, Grizzard, Kenny Walker (starting center), Terrence Meade (starting guard) and Travis Stinnett (reserve guard) fill out the junior class.

All five juniors finished last season as starters for the Tide, but Stinnett has been replaced in the starting lineup by super-frosh Maurice ‘Mo' Williams. One of the top-rated prep point guards in the country last year, Williams has started every game of his young Bama career.

"We were a team that was probably really looking for a guy at the point guard position," Gottfried said. "And Mo has stepped right in. Plus, our returning players are better. They've all improved, which is what you want. I think our chemistry is really good. They've meshed together well."

Along with his 10 points per game, Williams has 23 steals (tied for the team lead with Grizzard). From the point guard slot he's averaging almost five assists and four rebounds per game.

Gottfried assessed his team strengths. "Hopefully we've got a lot of different guys that can score. Defensively we've been pretty consistent. I like our defense, but hopefully on offense we're not relying on one person. Different guys can step up and score, and I think that's one of our strengths."

Throughout his tenure as Tide coach, Gottfried has consistently stressed solid defense. And an off-the-court hire prior to the season is significant in that regard. Former Tide and NBA great T.R. Dunn, known as a defensive specialist during his playing career, was added to the Bama staff. "We still pride ourselves on tough defense," Gottfried said. "There have been two games when we've give up a poor percentage (shooting) by the other teams: Missouri and UCLA. And those were two games that we lost. But night in and night out we've done a pretty good job.

Earnest Shelton has been more than willing to mix it up inside to help the team, but a knee injury has him sidelined for the moment.

"That's got to be something that's there for us consistently."

Erwin Dudley led the SEC in rebounding for most of last season, and with 8.2 boards per game he's taking up where he left off. But versus Florida A&M, he had a very uncharacteristic game, fouling out midway through the second half. "It gave Kenny an opportunity to play a little bit more," Gottfried commented. "And Kenny did a nice job in there. That was a positive."

Alabama's obvious weakness this season is on the inside, where a decidedly thin bench could spell problems should Dudley get into early foul trouble.

"Kenny is responding," Gottfried said. "He wants to be a great player, and he's getting better all the time. When he plays hard, he plays pretty well."

Gottfried makes a point of using his two inside starters to rest each other during games. Walker is averaging 23 minutes per outing, with 21 blocked shots and more than six rebounds per game. "Kenny needs to be an active player for us," Gottfried explained. "Scoring, rebounding and on defense. He can block shots. He just loses his concentration out there sometimes, but overall he does a good job."

One of the top rebounders in the nation, Dudley is a horse on the inside for Bama. But with only sophomore Reggie Rambo (6-7, 218) and little-used senior Solomon Davis (6-6, 225) as backups, Alabama is looking to other positions to help out rebounding.

Gottfried explained; "It's got to be a group effort, really. Kenny and Rod--those two guys need to rebound, but we really need to have good rebounding guards. We're not a big, dominating team. We've got to be collective in our effort rebounding.

"Everybody has got to get a couple more than they think they should. I think we can pick up the slack that way."

True freshman shooting guard Earnest Shelton (6-3, 190) has shown a willingness in early games to help out on the inside. Averaging only 15 minutes a game, Shelton has 25 rebounds to his credit. "You always want to build your team and give guys an opportunity to play," Gottfried said. "A guy like Earnest Shelton is a guy that has taken advantage of that for us the last couple of weeks."

But unfortunately, an already thin Bama bench got even thinner last night, as Shelton underwent surgery on his knee to repair cartilage damage. At this point, it's uncertain when he may be able to return to action.

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