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Players growing into stars at Alabama
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BeliefBlazer Offline
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After reaching the Elite Eight last season, Alabama now hunts bigger game. At worst, the No. 11 Crimson Tide are the only challengers to Kentucky in the SEC. At best, they are the most underrated team in America, unwisely left out of the Final Four conversation.

Seven-year coach Mark Gottfried has himself an underappreciated dynasty at Alabama, perhaps because he has built this monolith without McDonald's All-Americans. Nor has he done it with smoke, mirrors and scheduling. Gottfried has used something more diabolical, more unstoppable -- more durable.

Good old-fashioned player development.

"Our goal," he says, "is to make sure our players finish better than they started."

It sounds so easy: Come to college, get coached, get better. It happens everywhere.

Or not.

Look around the SEC, to name one struggling league. The only program that rivals Alabama in terms of player development is Kentucky under Tubby Smith, whose loaded freshman class this season is an aberration. Until Smith brought in three 2004 McDonald's All-Americans, his team was more likely to have the occasional Keith Bogans or Tayshaun Prince surrounded by improving program players like Gerald Fitch, Erik Daniels and Cliff Hawkins -- none of whom was considered a recruiting coup.

The SEC's past four recruiting cycles -- comprising this season's freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors -- were won by Florida and LSU, according to rankings by the Hoop Scoop. Alabama was third, Mississippi State fourth and Kentucky fifth. (The Hoop Scoop didn't count prep-to-NBA recruits Kwame Brown of Florida and Travis Outlaw of Mississippi State.)

Attrition has been spread out, with Florida losing James White and Mario Boggan, Mississippi State losing Jackie Butler and Alabama losing Kei Madison and Maurice Williams. Since 2001, the Crimson Tide have lost three players -- Rod Grizzard, Gerald Wallace and Williams -- prematurely to the NBA Draft.

Yet Alabama gets better. The Crimson Tide won 17 games in 2003 and 20 games in 2004, when they reached the Elite Eight. They're 17-3 entering Saturday's visit to Florida.

Good old-fashioned player development.

"We've got a bunch of guys who want to work on their game," Gottfried says. "When we started recruiting them, it became apparent they were guys who want to become better.

"At Alabama we've had a lot of those guys (over the years): Derrick McKey, Keith Askins, guys not recruited highly who ended up being 10-year pros -- good old Southern guys, very humble, hard-working. Guys in this part of the country don't get that much attention from a basketball standpoint, so they're hungry. They're hungry to get better."

Gottfried must know what they eat. Across the board, every Alabama veteran is markedly better than he was in 2003-04 -- when he was markedly better than 2002-03.

The rise in productivity is easily encapsulated by the quartet of Kennedy Winston, Chuck Davis, Earnest Shelton and Jermareo Davidson. Their minutes are up 5.4 percent (from 119.3 per game in 2003-04 to 126.0 this season) but their scoring is up 15.3 percent (49.3 points per game to 58.2) and their rebounding is up 22 percent (19.5 per game to 25).

Simple as that. Their playing time has gone up a little; their production has gone up a lot.

But it's not that simple. Look around the SEC. How good would Arkansas be if Jonathan Modica had gotten better instead of worse? How about Tennessee with the unimproved trio of Brandon Crump, Scooter McFadgon and C.J. Watson?

Numbers don't lie. At Mississippi State, Shane Power's efficiency has dropped while Winsome Frazier, before his knee injury, was essentially the same player as a year ago. LSU hasn't improved this season in large part because sophomore Regis Koundjia struggled even more than he did as a freshman, then left school.

Player development is a trend at Alabama that dates to Erwin Dudley and Antoine Pettway and now is symbolized by Davis, whose production has leapt from 1.5 points per game and 1.3 rebounds as a freshman to 11.5 points per game and 5.9 rebounds as a sophomore to 14.3 points per game and 7.1 rebounds this season. His accuracy also has improved, from the floor (36.4 percent to 51.4 to 57.1) and the foul line (20 percent to 69.4 to 81.6).

This is the reason Alabama is winning big with players who, with the exception of Winston and Shelton, were marginal recruits. The Crimson Tide's only losses have been to No. 13 Washington in Alaska, at No. 19 Wisconsin and at Vanderbilt. They defeated Minnesota, Charlotte and Temple outside the conference, and posted one of the season's most shocking scores in league play, a 98-49 dismantling of Mississippi State.

Good old-fashioned player development -- and get this: Gottfried sees a correlation between the court and classroom. After averaging less than one Academic All-SEC pick per year before Gottfried arrived in 1998, Alabama has had 16 in six years.

"Our guys stay here all year long, even in the summer," says Gottfried, an ex-Alabama guard who was Academic All-SEC in 1987. "It's helped with two things: It's helped them physically mature and get better, and it's helped us have a bunch of guys graduate. We've had 15 seniors in a row graduate, and it all goes together. If a guy's motivated in the classroom, he's probably a very motivated young man who wants to become a better player. I've seen it time and again."
02-04-2005 01:49 AM
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