Even without Davis, Tide appears NCAA-bound

Thursday, March 9, 2006 at 1:00am

Alabama at a glance
Coach: Mark Gottfried (eighth season; 160-94)
Regular-season record: 17-11
Last SEC Tournament title: 1991
Leading scorer: F Jermareo Davidson (14.1)
Leading rebounder: Davidson (9.0)
MVP: Davidson has big numbers, but the Tide wouldn't roll without point guard Ronald Steele, who shoots 41.3 percent from 3, 89.5 from the free-throw line and distributes the ball effectively.
Sleeper: Freshman forward Richard Hendrix is a future star and has already produced some big outings.
Best win this season: Took down SEC champion LSU on Feb. 4 in Tuscaloosa, 67-62.
Most disappointing loss: Losing by 13 at Mississippi State to close the regular season last week is a head-scratcher.

Fogler's Focus
"An overachieving team, and they are as good as Ronald Steele plays. He's the best point guard in the league. When he doesn't play well, it's hard for them to win. They have a huge frontline, but Steele is the key."

Alabama has been difficult to figure. One day, the Tide will beat SEC champion LSU or Florida. The next day, an inexplicable loss to Mississippi State or Georgia can occur.

Nonetheless, Alabama appears to have already punched its ticket for the NCAA Tournament for the fifth consecutive season by finishing 10-6 in SEC play.

The Tide took a hit in January when senior Chuck Davis, its best frontline player, went down with a season-ending knee injury. That void has been filled nicely by 6-10 junior Jermareo Davidson, who leads the team in scoring (14.1) and rebounding (9.0).

Davidson proved himself by firing in a career-high 28 points in Alabama's 68-64 victory at Kentucky on Jan. 14. He had never averaged more than 7.6 points per game in two previous seasons. Davidson's emergence makes the loss of Davis, while significant, perhaps not as damaging as anticipated.

Meanwhile, 'Bama has received exactly what it expected from sophomore Ronald Steele, considered by some rival coaches as the SEC's most pure point guard.

Steele can penetrate and pass and excels in shooting from the perimeter and at the foul line. In addition, he leads the SEC in minutes played as a result of Alabama having only seven scholarship players on the roster.

"He's our version of Lou Gehrig, the iron man," Coach Mark Gottfried said. "He never comes out. He's a great conditioned player that can play a lot of minutes and still be effective. He's the man of steel, no question. He's the kind of player that really doesn't get tired."

Freshman forward Richard Hendrix, among the nation's top prep players a year ago, has made an immediate impact and helped compensate for Davis' absence, averaging 9.6 points and 8.0 boards per game.

- Brett Hait

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