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November 3, 2009

Column: Get ready to see Grant's Tide run

TUSCALOOSA _ The practices have been almost entirely closed, the scrimmages even more under wraps, but the shroud surrounding the University of Alabama men's basketball team will finally be lifted Wednesday.

That's when the Crimson Tide will open its preseason with an exhibition against Montevallo at 7:30 p.m., part of a Coleman Coliseum doubleheader with the women facing North Alabama at 5:30.

Although Anthony Grant's coaching debut on the Capstone won't officially occur until next week (Nov. 14 vs. defending Ivy League champion Cornell, 1 p.m.) this will be everyone's first real inking of Alabama basketball under his direction.

Only I can tell you now that it will be like nothing anyone saw here last season, despite the four returning starters and seven players overall.

I know because of the Mariner Tritons.

From 1990-98, my first journalism job was for the News-Press in Southwest Florida, where I covered everything from offshore powerboat racing to professional football. One of the high schools in that growing area was Mariner, located in northern Cape Coral.

Serious sports fans might know a little about the Tritons for a variety of reasons. If there was an Arena Football League hall of fame Alvin Ashley would be in it. Forward Pat Burke didn't play organized basketball until he reached high school there and not only went on to play for Auburn but became the first Irish-born player in NBA history. Defensive lineman Greg Spires became a standout player for Florida State and won a Super Bowl ring with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Seth Petruzelli grew into a mixed martial arts fighter and recently knocked out Kimbo Slice.

However, ask local fans about Mariner and they'll almost certainly tell you about Tim Maloney's basketball teams. In 1993, he took over a program coming off a 7-18 season and went 18-7 his inaugural year. The Tritons finished 22-7 the subsequent season and the 1995-96 squad may have been the best in region history.

Mariner was so good that even the backup players got Division I scholarships, and that's not including Earnest Graham, who went on to be an outstanding running back for both Florida and the Buccaneers.

The Tritons' starting five included point guard Teddy Dupay, who went on to become the all-time leading scorer in state history with 3,744 points (breaking Chris Corchiani's record of 3,434), a 7-foot center, forwards who were 6-9 and 6-8, and a 6-5 shooting guard. They eventually headed off for, respectively, Florida, Colorado State, Navy, Florida Gulf Coast and Florida Atlantic.

"Bro, I'm surrounded by freaks," said Maloney, a native of Queens, New York, and he was. The team still reminds me of the aliens from the movie "Space Jam" because the Fightin' Tritons mutated from nearly nothing into a state contender seemingly overnight - going 33-3 en route to surprisingly being manhandled in the Class 5A championship.

Yet that's not the game that still sticks in my head. It's the region semifinal against St. Petersburg Northeast, which like Mariner played some serious up-tempo ball. The final score was 110-108, and it didn't go to overtime.

"There are no potions, no secrets to coaching," Maloney told me back then (he's now an assistant coach at Baylor). "We play exciting ball that I think people enjoy."
By now you're probably wondering what any of this has to do with Alabama. The pieces fit together like this: Before Dupay helped lead the Gators to the 2000 NCAA title game (an 89-76 loss to Michigan State), both his AAU and high school teams played the exact same run-and-press style as under Florida's Billy Donovan.

For a while, two of Donovan's assistant coaches were Grant and Maloney.

Although Mariner actually had more size than the Tide does this season, its goal every game was to try and run the opposition off the court and attack in waves. Maloney even had his players join the cross-country team when not playing basketball.

In the same vein, ask an Alabama player about the recent conditioning program and he'll almost certainly give you two looks, one wide-eye about how hard it was along with a smile because it's over. Only this is when the work really begins because Grant has only three post players this season and the entire roster is on unfamiliar ground. There may even be times this season that the Tide plays four guards at the same time.

"That's a possibility," Grant said. "We have 11 guys who can play, and we'll mix and match. There will be a multitude of different lineups."

This initial season will be what Grant calls "a work in progress," but here's what it won't be: boring.

"High-flying, up-and-down, fast-paced, going for-Alley-oops," senior guard Mikhail Torrance said. "Really defend."

"We're going to have a lot of fun and try and score 100 points every game."


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