Steele is the real deal

Tennessee's fullcourt press works well against teams who are weak at the point guard position. LSU, for instance, looked like a ship without a rudder while committing 20 turnovers in a 70-67 loss to the Vols on Feb. 6.

Tennessee's fullcourt press doesn't work nearly so well against teams who have quality point guards. For instance, Mike Conley guided Ohio State to a 68-66 defeat of UT on Jan. 13. Taurean Green led Florida to a 94-78 win on Feb. 3 and Tre Kelley guided South Carolina to an 81-64 upset of the Big Orange last Saturday.

That does not bode well for Tennessee Wednesday night against Alabama (8 p.m. tipoff at Thompson-Boling Arena). Ronald Steele, the Tide's sensational 6-3 junior point guard, is on that elite level with Conley, Green and Kelley.

Although he has been hampered by a sprained ankle much of the season, Steele ranks fifth among SEC players in minutes played (36.5 per game), 10th in steals (4.0 per game) and 12th in assist/turnover ratio (1.5 to 1).

And here's something that bodes even worse for Tennessee. Steele's health has improved significantly in the past few days.

"I think he's getting better," Bama coach Mark Gottfried said this week. "He had a game the other day where he got 15 points on seven shots. He hasn't had very many games where his line has looked that good this season. It appeared that he had more quickness the other day.

"We're a different team with him healthy. He was a preseason first-team All-American that has struggled this year. Any time you get a player like that back it's a tremendous boost."

Steele riddled the Vols last year in Tuscaloosa, sinking 6 of 11 shots from the field and 9 of 9 from the foul line. He played all 40 minutes, finishing with 22 points and 9 assists as the Tide prevailed 92-79.

Tennessee's head coach hasn't forgotten.

"He was playing as well as any point guard in the country at the end of last year," Bruce Pearl said. "Obviously, he's been hampered (this year) by his injuries but he's definitely moving better."

Like UT's Chris Lofton, Steele has altered his game a bit to accommodate his ankle injury. To relieve the stress on it, he is driving less and shooting more from long range.

"Last year he could get to the rim; he was really tough from two," Pearl said. "This year he's better from the three than the two because he can't get to the rim as well. When you have the ability to do both, that's what really sets you apart."


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