January 2, 2007

Jim Farmer's Weekly Dish

Mark Gottfried and the Crimson Tide helped ring in the new year with an impressive win over Oklahoma yesterday and while the Sooners may not be a top ten team now, they are a big name program and it took great effort from the Tide to step up and beat them the way they did.

As good as the Tide look right now, the absence of a healthy Ronald Steele makes a world of difference. Steele appears to be playing at no more than 75 to 80 percent of his normal ability and because of that, Gottfried is forced to change the way his team plays the game.

Because of Steele's inability to play man-to-man defense effectively, the Tide were forced to use heavy doses of zone defense, giving the Sooners an upper hand when it came to rebounding.

There are not many teams that can match up man-to-man with the Tide but when a team with a strong inside decides to go to the zone, Alabama has got to be able to knock down outside shots. The Tide's poor outside shooting kept things close early in the game but when the Tide were able to work the ball inside to Jermareo Davidson and Richard Hendrix, the game was quickly in hand.

For the Tide to get a win on national television over a big-name program like Oklahoma is a big positive boost heading into conference play, where the boys in Crimson will need all the boosts they can get.

Steele's health is key

Although there have been plenty of impressive performances from young players like Alonzo Gee and Mykal Riley, this season comes down to one key for Alabama: can Steele can get healthy and stay healthy?

Alabama has looked great in some of their home games and will likely stay competitive against most of their SEC opponents as they are right now. But on the road and in a neutral site tournament setting, 'Bama is overrated as the No. 8 team in the country.

Players like Gee can carry the load offensively in the short term but in the long run it's Ronald Steele that is going to have to be the leader of this team for Alabama to be considered a Final Four or even SEC championship caliber team. In order to take on that leadership role, Steele is going to need to be at the top of his game and have the ability to be the go-to guy for the Tide when they need him the most.

Whether or not that can or will happen is still uncertain. Having experienced tendonitis similar to Steele's in my playing days, I know it's one of those injuries where there are things you can do to ease the pain but no matter what you do, every time you jump, plant or push off it's going to be very painful. It's occasionally referred to as "jumper's knee" by players because it literally causes you wince in pain when you jump.

It's also an injury that can flair up at any given moment. My knee would even flair up from bad weather. Even with all the advances in medical science, it's hard to heal something like this within a season. Steele will need to muscle through some tough times in the next few months for the Tide to have the season they are hoping for.

SEC as tough as it gets

With SEC play beginning this week, the Crimson Tide will need to prepare for one of the toughest conference slates in SEC history. The SEC is the toughest conference out there this season and for perhaps the first time in the history of the conference, you could have three SEC teams capable of reaching the Final Four.

In the East you've got powerhouses like Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee along with a scrappy Georgia team are all capable of making and competing in the tournament. From the West, Bama and LSU are the front runners and while Arkansas could easily compete for the division title as well.

Many of the lower to middle tier teams have had good wins already this season (Vanderbilt beating Georgia Tech, Georgia beating Gonzaga). From top to bottom, the conference is as strong as any in the nation and when playing on the road in the SEC, you can get knocked off at anytime.

We'll all find out just how good Alabama is rather quickly with games at Arkansas and at home against LSU to kick off the conference schedule. Alabama has struggled in the past on the road so you'll find out whether the Tide is legit when they take on the Hogs in Fayetteville.

Living in the shadows

As a former Alabama player and a current Tide fan, I know Alabama is a football school first. Mark and I have laughed at it before when fans call in to his coach's show and ask him "who's going to start at quarterback next year?" and he and I both understand the importance the football program holds on campus.

But when I see a 12-1 Alabama team ranked 8th in the nation playing Oklahoma on national TV and the broadcast leads off with who's going to be the football coach, it's not just outrageous, it's disrespectful to Alabama's fantastic basketball team.

You've got an All-American point guard on the floor along with one of the most talented and courageous young men in America playing at center and a whole slew of impressive young players around them. Yet all the commentators seemed to be interested in was the coaching search.

As a former player and a fan, I am disappointed to see that the basketball program has not been appreciated like it should be. A lot of other universities have found a way for strong football and basketball programs to coexist but the fans and the media at Alabama can't seem to figure out how to acknowledge Alabama's 8th-ranked basketball team without talking about the football team first.

I think it's about time that people realize how far this program has come and just how highly respected it is in the basketball world. This is a program worth taking pride in as an Alabama fan and a program that deserves the respect and attention of both the fans and the media.

Jim Farmer's column appears every Tuesday on BamaOnline.

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