Highly touted Alabama emerges as favorite in next week's Paradise Jam
ST. THOMAS - When the 2006 Paradise Jam Division I College Basketball Tournament begins at the University of the Virgin Islands Sports and Fitness Center on Nov. 17, the favorite to win it all might not be the team everyone expected.
Instead, it likely will be Alabama.
When the men's Paradise Jam bracket was announced in March, Villanova was the centerpiece of the tournament's first eight-team field. About the time that the lineup was being finalized, the Wildcats were ranked No. 3 in the nation and embarking on a NCAA Tournament appearance that would eventually end with a trip to the Elite Eight.
Now, with the start of the season looming and opening night for Paradise Jam just 10 days away, it's difficult to find Villanova near the top of anyone's preseason rankings.
Alabama, on the other hand, has developed quite a bandwagon.
The Crimson Tide are ranked No. 11 in the Associated Press preseason college basketball poll released Monday, and No. 12 in the ESPN-USA Today preseason coaches' poll. Villanova is nowhere to be found in either Top 25.
It seems basketball experts and media pundits have more than a few questions about Villanova. After watching the Wildcats lose three star guards - Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry - from last year's guard-oriented offense, it's easy to understand why. The fact that Villanova's top returner, forward Curtis Sumpter, is coming off a severe knee injury doesn't inspire much confidence either.
But Villanova didn't lose the label of Paradise Jam favorite so much as Alabama took it away. The Tide look to be the best team in the largest and deepest Paradise Jam field yet. Alabama is coming off an 18-13 season that ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and included late-season wins over LSU, a Final Four team, and Florida, the eventual national champion. With every key player back this season, they look to be the class of a Paradise Jam field that includes not only Villanova but fellow playoffs contenders Xavier and Iowa as well.
"Alabama is incredibly athletic and they return, I think, everybody," said Nels Hawkinson, executive director of Paradise Jam organizer Basketball Travelers Inc. "They're loaded. From what I know, they are athletic, they get up and down the floor and they're well-coached."
While Villanova fell out of favor because of the trio of guards it lost, Alabama finds itself among the nation's elite because of one guard it returns: Junior point guard Ronald Steele is considered one of the top floor generals in the country and the main reason that the Tide are expected to challenge LSU in the SEC West.
Ronald Steele, an All-SEC selection last season, averaged 14.3 points and 4.3 assists per game and shot better than 41 percent from 3-point range. He is on the watch list for just about every award in college basketball this preseason and is ranked as the top point guard in the country by The Sporting News.
With big men Jermareo Davidson, 14.3 ppg, and Richard Hendrix, 9.4 ppg, also back in the fold, the Tide are a consensus pick to make their sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance this season.
"Alabama - from what the experts say - it appears on paper that they could maybe win this thing," Hawkinson said.
But Hawkinson also cautions against counting out Villanova, Xavier and Iowa. With the largest field to date, no one will have an easy road to the Paradise Jam title.
"Any one of four or five teams can win this thing really," Hawkinson said. "I'm a little surprised with the lack of respect that Villanova is getting initially. I still think they are one of the teams people are gunning for just because of the season they had last year."
Tickets for the 2006 Paradise Jam are on sale now and can be purchased at Modern Music in Havensight and Nisky Center and at the UVI bookstore. Tickets are $10 for Virgin Islands residents, $25 for non-residents and $5 for students. Discounted tickets for groups of 50 or more are also available at $5 each. To arrange group tickets, call 693-1199.
Kudos for Crimson Tide
What they're saying about point guard Ronald Steele and the Alabama Crimson Tide:
"I am confidently slotting the Tide at No. 10 (in the preseason power rankings), as I believe any squad with one of the nation's best point guards (Ronald Steele) and a big-time center (Jermareo Davidson) is legit." - Luke Winn, SportsIllustrated.com
"This is a talented team that should battle LSU all season for the (SEC) West Division championship, then play in the NCAA Tournament, where an extended run is likely, if for no other reason than the sheer force of Ronald Steele's will." - Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook
"Ronald Steele is one of the premier point guards in America." - Dick Vitale, broadcaster
"Alabama coach Mark Gottfried is earning a reputation as one of the game's hidden gems. His Tide made an Elite Eight run in 2004; don't be shocked if they make a similar run this March. The Tide aren't on national TV as much as they should be, but they'll get your attention by winning big games." - Andy Katz, ESPN.com
"This year, with a manageable schedule (a possible meeting against Xavier in the Paradise Jam might be the toughest nonconference game), the Tide could be undefeated heading into January." - Benson Taylor, SportingNews.com
"By March, Ronald Steele will have established himself as one of the two best point guards in the nation. Alabama will be a title contender and Ronald Steele will finally be recognized for his great ability and incredible toughness." - Jay Bilas, ESPN.com