'Bama, UK thriving with young generals


Published: Friday, January 28, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 28, 2005 at 12:20 a.m.
Early in the season, the concern surrounding conference powers Mississippi State, Kentucky and Alabama was guard play.
How would the three schools replace experienced, senior starting point guards?
The answer has been surprising. At Kentucky, coach Tubby Smith has entrusted a freshman to start at the point. Ditto Mark Gottfried at Alabama.
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury at least had the benefit of a season to groom Gary Ervin behind Timmy Bowers. Now, as a sophomore, Ervin is on his own to run the show.
Through the first month of the Southeastern Conference schedule, the two freshmen have not only adapted, they've flourished. Alabama's Ronald Steele is third in the SEC in assists at 5.37 per game, and Kentucky's Rajon Rondo is third in steals at 2.59 per game.
It's a big reason why Alabama is atop the SEC West at 5-1, and why Kentucky remains the only unbeaten team in the conference at 6-0.
"Steele has played like an upperclassman," Gottfried said. "That's rare. He's very poised, very coachable. I like his makeup."
Both Steele and Rondo have had the benefit of being surrounded by an experienced cast.
"Rajon has given us some excellent leadership," Smith said. "It helps when you have some experienced veteran players and we have done that by surrounding him with Chuck Hayes, Patrick Sparks and Kelenna Azubuike. That makes the transition a little bit easier."
Steele, a two-time Mr. Basketball in Alabama as a high school star in Birmingham, is surrounded by four returning starters.
"That's probably the ideal situation for a young point guard," Gottfried said.
Of the three, Ervin is going through the most struggles. Again, the supporting cast has played a role. Since senior guard Winsome Frazier went down with a broken foot, Ervin's assist-to-turnover ratio has decreased dramatically.
"It changes, no question," Stansbury said. "It's important to have the guys around you that can pick up for you. Gary is going through that experience right now and he's going to learn from it and become a better player."
  • MUSIC CITY BLUES: Something is out of tune in Nashville. Vanderbilt has lost four straight, blowing a 10-point lead in the second half Wednesday night at South Carolina to drop to 2-4 in the conference.
    A loss at Kentucky began the slide, followed by a home loss to Florida and a surprising road loss to a Georgia team that dressed just six scholarship players.
    The problem could be attributed to a lack of offensive balance. With 7-foot-2 center David Przybyszewski drifting around the perimeter, Vanderbilt has little inside presence. Rarely do the Commodores make entry passes to the post, opting instead to launch shots from the perimeter and try to open up the passing lanes for back-door cuts.
    Vanderbilt sank a combined 28 three-pointers in early season wins over Alabama and Tennessee. During the four game losing streak, though, the Commodores have shot 34.9 percent (40-115) from three-point range.
    "Guys that we were depending on have not been contributing," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "We're not a team that's so blessed with talent where if we don't have key guys contributing, we can survive."
    Stallings hinted that changes could come. Against South Carolina, freshman Alex Gordon (12 points) drained four 3-pointers in extended minutes. Yes, that's the same Alex Gordon who as a quarterback led Pensacola over Gainesville in overtime in last year's regional playoff finals.
    Lapses in defense and rebounding are other concerns for Stallings, who said he's willing to trade experience for some toughness.
    "We have some experienced guys who know where to go, know what to do, but for whatever reason are not getting there," Stallings said. "We have to reward the guys who stick their nose in the fray a little bit. We have to try to get those people in there."
  • HE SAID IT: Auburn coach Jeff Lebo, on freshman Toney Douglas, who remains the league's scoring leader at 19.4 per game -- "He's in a unique situation in that he's getting a high volume of shots. The other night he put 23 shots up. I think it probably took me about a month to get 23 shots up as a freshman (at North Carolina) under Dean Smith."
    Kevin Brockway can be reached at (352) 374-5054 or by e-mail at brockwk@gvillesun.com
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