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January 28, 2012

HURT: UA needs more play like Steele's

The simplest way to get the talent you need in intercollegiate athletics - in any sport - is to recruit it.

That doesn't mean that recruiting is easy. Just because Nick Saban spent most of Saturday afternoon making it look easy, loading aboard four- and five-star talent at roughly every media timeout of the Alabama-Arkansas basketball game. The Saban Formula - get really talented players, coach them well and get them to play hard - has yielded two crystal footballs. It can work in basketball, too, at places like Kentucky.

Alabama basketball is a little different. Certainly, great players can be attracted to Alabama. There are McDonald's All-Americans on the roster, and Anthony Grant does do a good job coaching them. But it takes more, as the Crimson Tide shows at times. The highly recruited players either have to lead themselves, or be amenable to leadership, and that wasn't necessarily the case in Alabama's four-game losing streak. Grant is trying to motivate in various ways.

JaMychal Green didn't start against Arkansas, although - after getting a technical foul out of his system in the first half - he seemed to come around.

Trevor Lacey, the most vaunted of this year's high-profile recruiting class, did start but went to the bench at around the 16-minute mark and didn't return for the rest of the game because, Grant said, "we just felt like there were some other guys who were doing a good job on the court."

That's not to say that either individual is solely responsible for UA's losing streak, or that they haven't been big contributors at times and won't be as Alabama looks to hold on to what seemed, at the end of December, to be a sure-fire NCAA berth.
But it takes more than talent.

Andrew Steele does have talent, and he was a top-50-type recruit coming out of high school. But he isn't a long-range shooter, or a 6-foot-10 power forward, or a mega-athlete who is going to regularly wreck rims with his dunking prowess.

His presence on this Crimson Tide team is one of the more fascinating recruiting stories ever because he came, not from high school or junior college, but straight from limbo, his career officially pronounced over after a series of concussions. Not to be morbid, but in basketball-career terms, it's like getting a five-star from a haunted house.

Alabama quite likely wouldn't have beaten Arkansas without Steele. He played 29 minutes - more than anyone on the team except Trevor Releford. He was, as Grant said, "all over the stats sheet." He scored 11 points (a career high) and had six assists (also a career high), thus having a direct hand in 23 Alabama points. He grabbed six rebounds. He was a safety valve who handled the ball well against Razorback pressure.

He did it all even though he has, in the past month, had to deal with the postconcussion syndrome, a broken toe that caused him to miss practice time and a bout of the flu.

"With his ability, his toughness and his ability to focus on whatever he can do to help the team win, he's just an emotional leader," Grant said. "He's a guy that provides stability on the court. I think his heart was really on display today. I'm really proud of the effort that he gave us. I thought he affected the game in so many ways today. It was good to see that."

There is enough talent on this team to overcome the four-game skid of mid-January and get UA back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years. But it's going to take more than talent. It's also going to take more efforts like the one Steele gave against Arkansas.

"The message from the coaches is that everyone needs to do what it takes to get a win," Steele said. "So that's what I tried to do."

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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