ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 12: Andrew Steele #22 of the Alabama Crimson Tide and Terrence Jones #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats vie for position during the semifinals of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament at Georgia Dome on March 12, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
A surprise bit of good news today for the Alabama basketball program: junior guard Andrew Steele, who was forced to give up his basketball career after a concussion sidelined him late last season, has been cleared medically to return to the team effective immediately.
Steele, a redshirt junior, has already missed the equivalent of two full seasons due to injury. As a freshman during the 2008-2009 season, he averaged 15.0 minutes/game and 3.3 points/game as a reserve guard in the playing rotation. His sophomore season in 2009-2010 (Grant's first year as coach) was cut short after only six games due to a knee injury, but it is important to note that Grant featured him as a starter in each of the games in which he was available that year. He ultimately received a medical redshirt for that season, and returned as a redshirt sophomore last year in 2010-2011. However, he was slow to recover from his knee injury and missed the first 12 games of the season. Once he returned, he played a significant role off the bench, averaging 18.3 minutes/game and 4.0 points/game. He played in every SEC game, and was a big part of the Tide's 12-4 SEC runner-up performance a year ago. Unfortunately he missed all five NIT games due to a concussion suffered in the SEC Tournament, and was advised later after some medical tests to give up playing.
Now, after missing the first 13 games of what will be his redshirt junior season, Steele still has a year and a half of eligibility remaining, and he will return as the most veteran player in the Tide's extremely young backcourt. As evidenced by his stats in the year and a half he's actually been healthy, Steele isn't a huge scoring threat and won't suddenly make the lackluster halfcourt offense more potent. However, he is an excellent defender, a good leader, and a very savvy, though certainly not flashy, offensive player. Essentially, he's one of those players who won't stuff the stat sheet but who in many ways makes the team better while he's on the court.
It's unclear how rusty Steele may be after essentially being told his career was over six months ago. If he's in good playing shape, it's easy to believe that he could begin to see significant minutes sooner rather than later. In fact, he may be able to dress as soon as the Tide's non-conference finale tomorrow night at Georgia Tech. Even if he's not quite ready to jump in with both feet, the coaches will no doubt look to get his feet wet soon, possibly as soon as tomorrow night, so that he'll be ready to contribute fully once SEC play heats up.
Now, with a veteran guard in Steele and a highly touted 7-footer in Moussa Gueye both unexpectedly returning to the team from injury, Anthony Grant and the Tide suddenly have two potentially big pieces to boost the team right as conference play is set to begin. It may take a while for both to get comfortable, and it's unclear how the two new faces will shake up the team, but it's hard to see how this news isn't positive for Bama fans.