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August 30, 2007

Steele, Carroll working to get back on track

Just two seasons ago, Ronald Steele and DeMarre Carroll appeared unstoppable.

The former Birmingham John Carroll High School teammates were lighting up the Southeastern Conference just as they had the competition in Alabama in winning back-to-back Class 6A state championships.

Steele was named first-team All-SEC after a sophomore season in which he averaged 14.3 points, 4.3 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game. The former five-star prospect shot 41.3 percent from 3-point range and nearly 90 percent at the free-throw line. His Alabama team made the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Carroll, a former three-star prospect, had posted 10.9 points and 6.4 rebounds as a sophomore. He led Vanderbilt in steals. He also was a key cog in the school's first season sweep of Kentucky in more than 30 years. Carroll averaged 18.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in the two victories over the Wildcats.

So what has happened since? Steele has been through more surgeries than a recurring guest on Grey's Anatomy. Carroll transferred to Missouri to play for his uncle Mike Anderson. Carroll sat out for a season, and was shot in the ankle outside of bar in Columbia, Mo., in July.

"We don't feel like we're unlucky, it's just opening our eyes to things that are out there," said Carroll, who speaks to Steele two or three times a week. "We need to get focused and not take basketball for granted."

More than just basketball flashed in front of Carroll's eyes on the morning of July 5. He says he was trying to break up a fight that involved some of his teammates outside Club Tropicana around 1:30 a.m. when gunshots were fired. Carroll and another man were hit.

"Doing the right thing is hard," Carroll said in reference to the shooting. "Good people can get hurt, too."

Carroll was shot in the right ankle. Miraculously, the bullet did no serious damage. It was a hair's breadth from hitting Carroll's Achilles' tendon.

Neither he nor the other victim was seriously injured.

Steele said he was shaken when he heard the news about Carroll.

"I was kind of scared to death," Steele said. "I was at the mall and my mom called me and told me. I called him as soon as I found out. He was in surgery, so he explained everything the next day when I talked to him.

Ronald Steele's Year-by-year at Alabama
DeMarre Carroll's year by year at Vanderbilt
2006-07sat out due to NCAA transfer rules
"I was afraid he might never play again. I'm glad everything worked out."

The 6-foot-8, 225-pound Carroll says he hasn't been the same since the shooting.

"It has had a tremendous impact on my life," he said. "Basketball can always be taken from you at the drop of a dime. I'm telling guys to spend more time in the gym, and outside the gym be careful and make the best decisions you can."

Steele hasn't been in any trouble off the court. He just can't stay out of the hospital. The 6-3 point guard has racked up three knee surgeries this offseason after hobbling through last season. He has said his knees were sore entering last season after he averaged more than 38 minutes per game in 2005-06. Steele also suffered a twisted ankle in a game in December. The injury exacerbated his knee trouble, and he became a shell of his sophomore self. He shot only 38.4 percent from the floor and saw his scoring average dip nearly six points per game to 8.6.

Both of Steele's knees were scoped on April 3. His left knee was scoped again a week ago.

"I think it (the most recent surgery) went very well," Steele said. "I'm ahead of schedule right now. Hopefully I continue to progress.

"I'm not sure I remember what it's like to feel good. But this is the best I've felt."

A healthy Steele would make for a happy Crimson Tide. Alabama is ranked 24th in the Rivals.com preseason poll. Without the point guard in top form, the Tide likely would wash out - as it did last season when it went 20-12 and lost in the first round of the NIT.

Carroll's new team would like to get to where his old team finished this past season. Carroll said he was "tremendously happy" about the Commodores run to the Sweet 16 last year, but he still believes he made the right move in transferring.

"It has allowed me to better my game," said Carroll, who joins a Tigers team that went 18-12 last season and returns most of its difference-makers. "It's really more my style because I love up-tempo. I get to display my skills all over the floor."

He said he's enjoying playing for Anderson as well.

"I feel like he can get on me, jump on me, and I won't respond (negatively)," Carroll said. "I won't disrespect my family. He can get more out of me than other coaches can.

"If you can't trust your family, who can you trust?"

Carroll trusts that he and Steele are ready to ascend again.

"That's all we talk about," Carroll said. "We both talk about how we have to have big years."

Marty Smith says anyone who bets against Steele and Carroll would be foolish. He was their coach at Birmingham Carroll, and he knows both will do whatever necessary to get back to the top of their games.

He saw it in practice for two years. He saw it when they'd play one-on-one after practice. He saw it while they were propelling the Cavaliers to a pair of state titles, including one undefeated season.

"The thing about the two young men was they knew they had an opportunity to make each other better," Smith said. "In every drill they tried to go against each other. It was neat to see them grow together and understand they had to push each other and compete to make each other better.

"They had a work ethic that was contagious. You either worked or you got left behind. But they had a way of bringing the others along with them. That's why we won back-to-back state championships."

And that's why there is reason for optimism in Tuscaloosa and Columbia.

"All that has happened, it's motivating," Carroll said. "I know he (Steele) has a chip on his shoulder. When you're on the pedestal you feel like you don't have to work as hard. He's been up there and maybe lost some of that drive, and I feel like he has it back the way he's talking.

"I've got a chip, too. I'm ready."

"It's our nature," Steele said. "We always feel like we have something to prove."

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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