'They answered the bell'

Faced with the job of rebuilding the Alabama basketball program, one of the first things Mark Gottfried did when he was hired before the ‘98/'99 season was turn his attention to recruiting. <br><br>Three of the four members of that first crucial recruiting class will be feted at Senior Night tomorrow.

Rod Grizzard left school one year early, and is now toiling in the NBA Developmental League. But Erwin Dudley, Kenny Walker and Terrance Meade have given four years to The University, and all three are set to graduate.

"This class will always be special to me," Gottfried said. "It was my first recruiting class, and these guys have helped to raise the level of basketball at Alabama. All three of them are on track to graduate, which is impressive."

Though his on-the-court production dropped later in his career, Terrance Meade has been an exemplary student-athlete during his four seasons at Alabama. (Associated Press)

Alabama's three senior players have been instrumental in the Tide's rise the past four seasons. All three came with the desire to be the players to put Alabama back on the basketball map. Except for the last several games, all three have been full-time starters since their freshman season. All three are members of the Academic All-SEC team for 2003, and all three will have graduated from the University of Alabama by summer's end.

"The fact that they're graduating says a lot," Gottfried noted. "Since we've been here 10-of-11 of our seniors have graduated. Rod Grizzard is the only exception. That kind of graduation rate helps your recruiting. These three guys have set the tone."

With four freshmen in the starting lineup, the Tide struggled their first season on campus, finishing 13-16 overall. But the trio helped lead Alabama back into the national rankings by their sophomore season and won the SEC Championship (and advanced to the SEC tournament's championship game) their junior year.

Heartbroken about not getting in to the NCAA tournament despite a 21-10 record on Selection Sunday their second year, the group made it to the NIT championship final in 2001 and finished with a 25-11 record, Alabama's first 20-win season since 1995.

Their play this season has helped Alabama gain its highest ever ranking, a No. 1 spot, for two straight weeks in the December 23rd and December 30th rankings. The group has already had at least two 20-win seasons with a 25-11 record as sophomores in 2001 and a 27-8 record as juniors (one shy of the school's most-wins record). As seniors they helped Alabama set the school's home win streak record at 28 straight, a streak that began their sophomore year and included a school record 17-0 mark at home in 2002.

Alabama's record since the three arrived is 81-44 (.648%).

"I hope our fans can come out tomorrow night and show their appreciation for these guys," Gottfried said. "They earned Bama's first SEC championship since 1987."

Playing center for most of his career, Kenny Walker was part of the foundation of Bama's recent success. (GettyImages)

In the three seasons before they signed, Alabama basketball had fallen into a disturbing trend of mediocrity, going 17-14, 15-16 and 17-15. But Dudley, Walker and Meade believed in Gottfried and his vision for the future.

"They believed in us and what we were selling to them," Gottfried recalled. "We said we were going to win; we said we were going to post-season tournaments; we said we were going to fill Coleman Coliseum. They believed us at a time when Alabama wasn't doing any of that. They came with a belief in our staff and in Alabama.

"They answered the bell."

Last year's SEC Player of the Year, Dudley has been the most honored of the trio. Dudley currently leads the Southeastern Conference in two of its three most important stats and ranks 7th in the third. In SEC vs. SEC games he ranks first in rebounding (9.1) and first in field goal percentage (.579) and 7th in scoring (16.3). Dudley also leads in SEC vs. SEC offensive rebounds with his 3.36 offensive boards per SEC game average.

In addition to his league leading stats in rebounding and field goal percentage, Bama's Erwin Dudley has also produced the most double doubles this season of any SEC player (all games). Dudley has 8 this season, including his just accomplished 18 points and 10 rebounds on Sunday against Ole Miss. His career double double total is 42 and counting.

Dudley will leave Alabama with his name written prominently throughout the record books. He has 1,727 career points, which ranks 9th all-time at the University of Alabama. He broke the all-time career starts record with 122 career starts against Georgia. He's now at 125. The power forward currently stands No. 4 on the Tide all-time rebounding list. Dudley has led the league in rebounding all season, setting himself up to possibly become a three-time league rebounding champion, having won it in 2001 & 2002.

"Erwin is a quiet, ‘E.F. Hutton' like player," Gottfried said. "He's not much into talking, but when he does his teammates respond. He's been so reliable for four years, that it's just amazing. He's come in and done so much. He deserves to be an All-American."

Center/forward Kenny Walker had 75 career starts going into his senior season, and his start against Ole Miss on Sunday pushed that number to an even 100. The Jacksonville, Fla., native came in as a freshman center backing up fifth-year senior Jeremy Hays. When Hays' knee didn't hold up, Walker was forced into the starter's roll as a freshman. Except for one stint rehabbing a broken leg, Walker has been a fixture in the lineup ever since.

Working tirelessly on and off the court throughout his entire career, Erwin Dudley will leave Alabama as one of the Tide's all-time best basketball stars. (AllSport)

"I believe in recruiting guys with great character," Gottfried said. "They'll help you win, even during difficult times. Those type guys will get you out of a hole. We recruit great players that are also great people. I'm going to stick with that philosophy as long as I'm coaching."

Senior guard Terrance Meade ranked 33rd on Alabama's all-time scorer's list after the Arkansas game. The Scottsboro native has 1,089 career points. As a freshman Meade led the SEC in 3-point shooting, 60-of-142 for a .423 average. During his career at the Capstone Meade has established himself as an excellent student, involved extensively in community outreach projects.

"Just as important as basketball has been his contributions to the community and what he does on campus," Gottfried said. "All three seniors should feel good about their contributions to Alabama."

Wednesday night's game against South Carolina will mark the final regular season home appearance for Erwin Dudley, Terrance Meade and Kenny Walker. That trio and senior team head manager Clay Pruitt, will be honored prior to tip-off of the game (7 pm, CST).

"If you're a fan of Alabama basketball, then I hope that you'll be here Wednesday," Gottfried concluded. "These guys all came to Alabama when it wasn't really an attractive place to go. I hope it'll be a special night for them."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Becky Hopf of UA Media Relations contributed to this report.

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