The Alabama Crimson Tide. Picked to place SECOND in the Western Division of the SEC.
Although finishing with only an 8-8 record in the SEC, the Tide had a good season overall, 25-11. A trip to the NIT produced consecutive wins over Seton Hall, Toledo, Purdue, and Detroit, before a loss to Tulsa in the tournament finals. In the SEC tournament, Alabama defeated Vanderbilt easily before being eliminiated by Florida. There are some significant losses from that team, especially 6'7" freshman Gerald Wallace, who averaged 9.8 ppg and 6 rebounds. Wallace, who made the all-conference freshman team, entered the NBA draft and was taken in the first round even though his shooting as an Alabama freshman was less than impressive (43.8% from the field, making only 17.5% of his three-point efforts, and 56.8% from the three point line). Also gone is super-substitute 6'3" Terrence (Doc) Martin (5.4 ppg and 3 rebounds), point guard Tarik London (2.6 ppg and 100 assists), and two little-used senior substitutes (6'8" Alfred Moss and 6'7" Jim Bakken). London had actually been beaten out of his starting role by the end of the season. Alabama's great rebounding center, Jeremy Hays, had to give up basketball last season because of injuries after playing in just five early-season games. This year the Tide returns five of the top six scorers and four other substitutes, and brings in four newcomers.
Travis Stinnett, 5'11" junior, who was once interested in coming to Vanderbilt, took over the point guard position late last season. He proved to be a deadeyed three-point shooter (44.2%) and finished with 6.8 ppg. However his assist to turnover ratio (48 to 47) can stand a lot of improvement. He may have trouble holding on to his starting position if 6'1" freshman Maurice Williams, from Murrah HS in Jackson MS, proves to be as good as expected. Another point guard possibility is 6'0" sophomore Antoine Pettway (2.8 ppg, 47 assists), a former walk-on who did good work at times.
There is another returning starter at shooting guard, 6'2" junior Terrance Meade. He averaged 10.8 ppg and sank 35.6% of his three pointers, while playing 977 minutes. Pushing Meade will be 6'3" freshman Earnest Shelton, from White Station HS in Memphis. It will be remembered that Shelton, an excellent shooter, but possibly less quick than Meade, drew attention from Vanderbilt before committing to Alabama. Also available to play shooting guard is 6'3" Demetrius Smith, who played only 78 minutes last year, and failed to impress.
6'8" junior wing forward Rod Grizzard (17.0 ppg, 6.4 rebounds) was selected to the all-conference first team last year. He handles the ball a great deal and shoots a lot, but not always with great accuracy (39.8% overall from the field, 32.7% from three point territory). He does get a lot of free throws (181 last year), and makes them (81.2%). He will probably lead the team in minutes played once again. Now that Doc Martin is gone, possible substitutes for Grizzard will be 6'7" freshman Lucky Williams, a Nigerian who attended high school in MIssissippi, and rarely used 6'7" sophomore Reggie Rambo.
At power forward, Kenny Walker, 6'9", returns. He fouls a lot and doesn't score much (6.7 ppg), but pulled down 4.6 rebounds per game last year. Walker may also move over to center at times. Backing him up is Sam Haginas, 6'8" senior, who had a promising freshman year but hasn't played much since. (Haginas strongly considered coming to Vanderbilt, where he would certainly have seen a lot more action considering the lack of depth the Commodores have had in the front line the past couple of years.)
Back to capably fill the center position is Erwin Dudley, 6'8", 240 lbs, invaluable workhorse and second-team all SEC player, who averaged 14.4 ppg and 10 rebounds. The consistent Dudley never takes an outside shot, made 52.9% of the inside efforts that he put up, but needs to improve his free throw shooting (60.6%) because he goes to the free throw line often. He may get some help from Rodney Bias, 6'9", 235 lbs JUCO from Shelton State, and from Walker.
Obviously Dudley and Grizzard are two of the most talented players in the conference. The starting lineup should consist entirely of experienced players unless talented Maurice Williams makes his way into it. Mark Gottfried is a solid coach who has proved himself at Murray State and with the good season that Alabama had last year.
At times last year, Alabama's defense got seriously outworked by the opposition (as in games with Tulsa, Mississippi, Mississippi State, and Arkansas). Until Stinnett entered the lineup the outside shooting was unreliable. Grizzard, although talented, tends to take over too much on the offense.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
One key is improved shot selection by Grizzard. For the Tide to have any depth, either some of the freshmen are going to have to help out a lot or veteran players who haven't done much in the past are going to have to produce. However, there is enough strength in the top five veterans (Grizzard, Dudley, Meade, Stinnett, Walker) to make the Tide strong contenders for the division title. I am picking Alabama for second, just behind Auburn.