Theories abound as to why the last 15 years or so of University of Alabama basketball has not matched the Crimson Tide’s golden era in the 1970s and ’80s. That’s a big question, the kind that doesn’t have a simple “Choose A, B or C” answer. After watching last week’s AHSAA boy’s state tournament in Birmingham, one part of the answer was clear: there aren’t as many players in the state as there once were.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t good players, today or in the relative recent past. Eric Bledsoe, who played at Parker High in Birmingham before spending a year at Kentucky in 2010, just fulfilled the ultimate NBA dream, signing a $70 million contract extension.
Demarcus Cousins, who came out of Mobile (via Birmingham) in the same year is playing at a discount for Golden State this season but turned down a two-year, $40 million offer from New Orleans to chase a championship.
This year, there’s an excellent prospect, Trendon Watford of Mountain Brook. Watford was expected to visit Tuscaloosa for the Alabama-Auburn game on Tuesday night (this column was written prior to tip-off for deadline purposes) and is being pursued by Duke, among other national schools. He’s skilled and has been coached well, although some recruiting services have stretched him a bit.
He appears closer to 6-7 than 6-9 and while he is considered a five-star prospect by most of those services, it’s worth noting that not all five-stars are created equal and not all are Zion Williamson five-stars, or one-and-done players. In some ways, that makes Watford more of a long-range value, likely to be a contributor for three or four years wherever he plays collegiately.
But aside from Watford, there were only a handful of eye-catching seniors — Jaykwon Walton from Carver-Montgomery, and Demond Robinson, whose 6-foot-7, 245-pound frame made me wonder if he might not have projected higher than the Ohio Valley Conference had he waited to sign. But there were no Bledsoe-level guards (admittedly, Kira Lewis might have been quite the attraction had he been playing for Hazel Green High School), no big men with the prowess of Cousins.
Again, that’s not to say there aren’t currently some good players from this state playing collegiately. Alabama still has several on its roster, and while it will lose Donta Hall and Riley Norris, that still leaves Lewis, Dazon Ingram, John Petty, Herb Jones and redshirt Diante Wood as possible contributors next year. All three of Alabama’s early signees are from out of state.
Auburn’s roster had Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, highly-rated players who have been hampered by injuries and off-the-court issues. Josh Langford was a starter at Michigan State before an injury, and Garrison Brooks is a contributor at North Carolina.
But it still isn’t the same as the days when Alabama, Auburn and UAB could all make the NCAA Tournament with rosters stocked largely from within the state — Leon Douglas and Reggie King, Ennis Whatley and Bobby Lee Hurt, Robert Horry and Keith Askins, Ronald Steele and Chuck Davis, Charles Barkley and Chuck Person, Oliver Robinson and Marvin Ray Johnson.
That sort of depth doesn’t exist. Perhaps it’s because of various factors that have changed the dynamic of basketball at the inner-city schools in Birmingham. Perhaps there is talent that is being overlooked. There are still great players, but not as many — and that is one part of why things are different than they were in the 1980s.
Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil @tidesports.com or 205-722-0225