Team preview: Alabama State

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.


Alabama State, coming off its second NCAA tournament appearance in three years under coach Lewis Jackson, performed an absolute Houdini act just to make the NCAA's field of 68 last March.

Slow starts are the norm for SWAC teams, because they all play tough non-conference schedules loaded with road games against teams from power conferences. Those games offer lucrative paydays but often result in lopsided losses. But even by SWAC standards, Alabama State's 2010-11 start was slow. By the time the ball dropped in Times Square on 2011, the Hornets were 3-10.

And they eventually sunk to 6-16 by the end of January.

But a mid-season retooling of the team's offense and the return of senior forward Tramayne Moorer enabled the team to turn things completely around. Moorer missed the first 12 games waiting for the NCAA to approve his petition for a sixth year of eligibility.

When the NCAA finally ruled in his favor, he played one game and got hurt -- story of his career; you name a body part, he wounded it during his six years on campus -- and missed five more games.

When he recovered, he played two games and then got sick with the flu, missing two more games.

Then Moorer came back again, and Alabama State took off. The Hornets went from 6-16 at the end of January to 17-17 by winning 11 of their final 12 games, including a 17-point thrashing of Grambling in the SWAC Tournament title game to punch their Big Dance ticket.

Alabama State Hornets

Moorer gave the Hornets a solid inside presence on both ends of the floor, averaging 12.4 points and a shade under six boards per game. With Moorer back, Alabama State outrebounded its opponents by an average of 11 boards per game in the league tournament while limiting them to 39-percent shooting

The team's magic carpet ride ended in the NCAA's first round when the Hornets couldn't overcome a horrendous first-half performance and lost to UTSA, 70-61 in Dayton.

The game brought to an end the careers of Moorer and Chris Duncan, a shot-swatter who was a third-team All-SWAC performer and 2011 SWAC Defensive Player of the Year.


So while Jackson will once again have a deep, tough-as-nails backcourt with three returning starters in seniors Jeffrey Middlebrooks at the point and Tramaine Butler (10.7 ppg) and Kenderek Washington (8.8 ppg) on the wings, along with superb sixth man Ivory White (7.1 ppg), he will have to rebuild his frontcourt in 2011-12 in order to have a prayer of returning to the Big Dance yet again.

"We have really good guards.

They're so good, in fact, that we'll probably often play four of them on the court on the same time," Jackson said. "But we like to play inside-out here at Alabama State, so we'll have to replace Moorer's in-the-paint scoring by committee. The good news is that the exposure of getting into the Big Dance really helped us on the recruiting trail. We landed some big guys who will be able to get on to the court right away and help us."

Forward Phillip Crawford, a 6-7 transfer from Pearl River Community College, is Exhibit A. Crawford, who played his high school ball at Murphy High in Mobile, Ala., was a first-team all-conference and All-Region 23 performer the last two seasons at Pearl River. In 2010-11, he averaged 18.2 points and 7.9 rebounds a game to go with a team-best 59.9 percent field-goal percentage.

Crawford seems like a good bet to crack Alabama A&M's starting five for three reasons: 1) he has some size; 2) he doesn't need a GPS to find the hoop; and 3) he knows how to blend his skills with other D-I talents after starring alongside forward Emil Jones (now at Troy) and point guard Pedro Maciel (Nicholls State) last season at Pearl River.

"Phillip Crawford will play for us right away," Jackson said. "He's athletic, aggressive and can score. Plus, he's a former junior college teammate of our own Kenderek Washington and he's played with and against great competition during his time at Pearl River."

In addition to Crawford, Jackson has a group of young players who will see court time right away: 6-6 sophomore Jonathan Jefferson (who played one year of junior college ball last year at Alabama Southern JC), a well-chiseled 6-4 freshman in Dominique Miller from Columbia, S.C., a pair of 6-7 freshmen in Eugene Johnson and Luther Page, and a 6-10, 290-pound freshman project in Ralph Wilson of Americus, Ga.

Like Crawford, Jefferson played some JUCO ball and is a double-double threat every time he steps on the court.

Johnson averaged just eight points and eight rebounds as a high school senior at Pleasant Grove (Ala.) High School, but he's a defense-first type, so that might earn him some playing time as a freshman.

The lefty Miller is an intriguing recruit who averaged a double-double (15 ppg, 10 rpg) at Lower Richland (S.C.) High School, while Page led Father Gabriel Richard (Mich.) High School in scoring (14.4 ppg) and rebounding (8.6 rpg). He had nine double doubles in an extremely competitive Detroit Catholic High School League.

Wilson is a complete project -- albeit a tall one at 6-10.

Jackson believes that Jefferson, Miller, Page and perhaps Johnson will play right away as he tries to find enough bigs to allow him to go eight or nine deep. Quality depth is important at Alabama State, so that Jackson can keep fresh legs in the game at all times in order to play the team's trademark, suffocating defense.

"Jefferson was a good recruit for us," Jackson said. "He can shoot the ball, so he can step away from the basket and score. He'll play right away for us. So will Miller. He only stands 6-4, but Miller plays much bigger than that, because he's built like a junior or senior in college right now. We're really excited about him. He can put the ball on the floor and has great legs that allow him to play above the rim.

"Page is a very aggressive player who will hit the backboards and possesses the proper defensive mindset to play right away. And Eugene Johnson and Ralph Wilson give us some much-needed size.

"There are obviously frontcourt minutes to be had, so we'll throw these young guys out there and see how they respond. I'm confident that they'll grow up over the course of the season and will be really ready to go once SWAC play starts.

Helping to speed up the young frontcourt players' leaning curves will be the fact that they'll go against top-notch talent in practice (i.e. Crawford and 6-7 Troy transfer Shawntez Patterson) and then in games as the Hornets' non-conference schedule includes dates with Cincinnati, Clemson, Marshall, Detroit and Evansville.

Patterson (6-7, 200) is a well traveled but gifted frontcourt player.

A Detroit native, Patterson started his college career at Duquesne. But after appearing in only five games as a freshman, Patterson left the Steel City to play junior college ball at Pensacola (Fla.) Junior College, where he impressed enough to earn a scholarship to Troy. Patterson averaged 7.9 points and 3.4 rebounds per game last season at Troy, but will have to sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules.

The Hornets' young frontcourt will also be helped by the fact that they'll take the court with one of the SWAC's deepest collections of backcourt talent.

The 6-0, 170-pound Middlebrooks is a pass-first point guard and the steady hand that makes the Hornets go. He averaged just 4.9 points per game, but he notched a team-high 97 assists and his quick hands led to 31 steals.

He'll team up once again with trio of first-rate wings in Butler, the team's second leading scorer last season (10.7 ppg), as well as stat-sheet stuffers Washington and White, in a well-stocked perimeter.

Butler is only a reliable three-point shot away from being a first-team all-league player; he shot a dismal .253 from behind the arc last season but worked tirelessly on his long-distance aim in the off-season.

Washington (8.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and will blossom into a 12-14 points-per-game scorer in 2011-12, if he improves his three-point aim (.329 3PT) and cuts down his turnovers (1.6 tpg). White, despite coming off the bench last season, was a second-team All-SWAC performer and a coach's dream. White was 13th in the SWAC in three-point shooting (.306), 14th in three-pointers made (1.1 per game) and 11th in rebounding (5.4 rpg).

"Everyone says that college basketball is a guard's game and we have great guards," Jackson said. "Middlebrooks sacrifices his own offense for the good of the team. Butler is a natural scorer who can get into the teeth of any defense. And Washington and White do whatever the team needs to win -- whether that's scoring, rebounding, steals, great on-the-ball defense, or hustle plays.

"These guards made so many big plays for us last season, plays that got us into the NCAA tournament last March. And I'm certain that they'll be great leaders for us in 2011-12."

When the senior guards need a break, 6-0, 170-pound junior Ryan Watts, who appeared in 26 games for the Hornets last season and knows the system well, and highly touted and long-armed junior point guard Josh Mason from State College of Florida-Manatee will be ready to help.

Watts averaged 2.5 points per game off the bench for the Hornets last season.

Mason, if ruled eligible by the NCAA Clearinghouse, bears watching. At nearly 6-4, Mason is a long, athletic point guard who is at his best when getting out in transition. He averaged 12.5 points, 5.5 assists and 7.6 rebounds as a sophomore at State College of Florida-Manatee. He's also a decent defender with a 6-11 wingspan and a 40-inch vertical leap.






College hoops is ruled by guards, and Alabama State has more tough guards than a state prison, so they'll be in the SWAC title hunt in 2012, along with Texas Southern and Mississippi Valley State.

Coach Lewis Jackson knows that the key to the season will be unearthing enough scoring from his new-look frontcourt to offset the loss of Tremayne Moorer.

That won't be a one-man job, but one of the benefits of winning the 2011 SWAC tournament -- and the conference's golden ticket into the Big Dance -- is that helped Jackson land some quality big men.

If the newcomers can grow up quickly and buy into Jackson's play-defense-or-sit-the-bench style, a third NCAA Tournament berth in four years is possible if the Hornets are able to peak during SWAC tournament week.

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.