The Right Mental Stuff

Tuesday afternoon, Mark Gottfried was cautious and analytical, as he typically is after a loss (and sometimes after a victory). Late Saturday night, he'd watched his University of Alabama men's basketball team play well but come up on the short end of a 79-76 loss to Washington in the Great Alaska Shootout championship game.

In that game, one of his purported leaders–senior shooting guard Earnest Shelton–rode the pine for much of the second half with four fouls, including a technical foul drawn when he rolled the basketball away from an official after drawing a controversial offensive foul.

Another–junior small forward Kennedy Winston–admitted afterward he was playing passively, which hurt his team's offensive flow in the loss.

Gottfried was concerned, perhaps rightfully so.

"I think this team is still searching for leadership," he said. "There's a void there. Last year, our guy who was the leader was such an exceptional one in (Antoine) Pettway. Now we're feeling our way.

"Every team develops a personality, and we don't have that yet with this group."

On and on they talked Monday afternoon, Gottfried, Winston and junior forward Chuck Davis, all explaining how badly the 22nd-ranked Tide needed a leader.

After Wednesday's 114-77 rout of East Tennessee State, no one was complaining much about leadership. A solid leader emerged, but it wasn't whom you might have expected.

While Davis, Shelton and Winston have started a combined 127 college games, right now the Tide's best leader is freshman point guard Ron Steele–who's started a grand total of six college games, all in the past two weeks.

If you disagree with this opinion, you obviously didn't watch Wednesday's game. Steele was everything a point guard is supposed to be–all-seeing, cool and unselfish.

He dished out 18 assists–an even nine in each half–while becoming UA's all-time single-game assists leader. Before Wednesday, the record had stood for more than 20 years, held by former UA point guard Eric Richardson, who had 15 on February 4, 1984 against Kentucky.

Steele smashed it in just his sixth college game.

"Our offense moved the ball as a team as well as we have all year," Gottfried said. "What a signature-, statement-game for a young freshman to get 18 assists."

More impressive than the huge number was the way Steele handled his game–and his accomplishment. He looked equally at ease feeding the ball inside to Davis and Jermareo Davidson, and outside to Shelton and Winston.

His passes to Jean Felix, Justin Jonus and LaKory Daniels in garbage time with the game decided were just as good as those to Shelton and Winston early in the first half.

And he took just four shots, scoring a grand total of four points on a night when Alabama piled up its second-highest single game point total in school history.

When asked about his impressive night, he was equally matter-of-fact.

"When you have a team full of great scorers like Earnest Shelton, Kennedy Winston and Chuck Davis, you give them the ball and opportunities to score, and you know you don't have to take a lot of shots," Steele said modestly. "My job isn't to score. It's to create opportunities for the other guys."

That's a true point guard mentality–putting success of others–and the team–before your own.

It's a mentality shoot-first point guard Mo Williams didn't have, one of the biggest reasons Alabama's number one to first-round flameout occurred in 2003.

Steele's let-your-actions-talk style is far more in line with Williams' successor–Pettway.

Last spring, Pettway was the key to the Tide's surprising run, canning huge shots at Georgia and Arkansas and against Southern Illinois and Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament.

But he was just as comfortable creating big shots for others and letting them take the credit.

Pettway was the only major loss from a team that finished one game from the Final Four, albeit against a far more talented UConn team.

Again and again this preseason, Gottfried harped on how much his team would miss Pettway, its on-the-court and emotional leader.

So far, it hasn't missed him much at all.

We'll learn much more about Steele's readiness in upcoming road tests at Charlotte and Wisconsin (and a home date against Temple's dangerous matchup zone defense), not to mention the nightly rigors of the Southeastern Conference.

But if early results are any indication, Steele appears more than capable of filling Pettway's big ruby-red shoes and leading Alabama's charge into college hoops' promised land.

Greg Wallace is the award-winning Alabama beat reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes this column for

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