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February 11, 2012

HURT: UA basketball season hanging in the balance

BATON ROUGE, La. | Long after Alabama's 67-58 loss to LSU on Saturday had ended, Anthony Grant sat alone in the Crimson Tide locker room, his need for solitude so intense that he not only instructed LSU security personnel to keep the hallway leading to the locker room clear but asked them to stay out of the hallway themselves.

He did finally come out and greet a few kids in Alabama apparel who had waited for an autograph, but the cheer they brought was temporary.

It was the end of a difficult 24 hours for Grant. On Friday night, after the Crimson Tide - coming off one of its more satisfying wins of the season, a Tuesday night stifling of Auburn - arrived in Baton Rouge, Grant received information about a "violation of team rules" that had occurred in Tuscaloosa.

Weighing that information - the specifics of which have not been made public - Grant made a decision to send three players home.

One could make the case they were his three best players, excepting the previously suspended Tony Mitchell: JaMychal Green, Andrew Steele and Trevor Releford. All are upperclassmen. All should be leaders on this team. All would have made a difference in a winnable SEC road game against LSU.

Still, Grant packed them in a car with a graduate assistant and sent them back to Tuscaloosa. The remaining eight players available came out, looked understandably shell-shocked in the first half, rallied in the second half but came up short.

It probably was not their effort that bothered Grant late into Saturday night. Instead, it was probably the fact that four players - almost every experienced player on the team, players who should understand what is at stake - created the circumstances of their own absence.

"It was definitely very disappointing in terms of some of the choices that we as individuals made," Grant said, his syntax showing a refusal to separate himself from the team.

"We're dealing with young men here. I was a college student, and not every choice I made as a college student was always the right choice. But the thing that is most disappointing is how their choices affected so many other people: their teammates, their loved ones and all the people out there who love the University of Alabama.

"As a coach, I'm disappointed, but I take responsibility for these young men." Grant didn't repeat this key quote from the university's official release, where he said "talent is a gift, but character is a choice."

He was left to ponder what to do with a team clearly gifted with talent but seemingly less able to reflect character in its choices, choices that are sometimes visibly on the court in terms of effort and demeanor.

Grant said he "wanted to think more" before deciding whether any of the four suspended players - including Mitchell, previously suspended for what Grant said was an unrelated matter - would be back for Tuesday's critical game against Florida, or at some other unspecified point in the future.

The door does appear open, but what level of trust will there be if and when reinstatement occurs? How will the disappointed ones Grant alluded to - the teammates, the loved ones, the fans - view the players upon their return, when and if there is one?

At this point, there is still a season for Alabama. Saturday's loss didn't help things, but it was not an NCAA elimination game for the Crimson Tide, as some breathless hyperbole on the Internet surmised.

But it is a season hanging in the balance, depending not on some buzzer-beating 3-pointer or defensive stand, but on choices - bad ones already made, some yet to come and the choices a head coach quietly pondered in an empty locker room in Baton Rouge.

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