Mike Strange: Jalen Steele proves he's good enough in Knoxville homecoming

Mike Strange
ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL
Mississippi State guard and former Fulton High School player Jalen Steele celebrates after sinking a three-pointer during the first half against Tennessee at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday.

Photo by Adam Brimer

ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL Mississippi State guard and former Fulton High School player Jalen Steele celebrates after sinking a three-pointer during the first half against Tennessee at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday.

Jalen Steele emerged from the locker room and they were waiting —lined up single file to get a hug or snap a photo.

The Steele side of the family, the Kimber side of the family and the Fulton High School family. They all had a smile and a kind word.

"It's tough when you come home,'' said Fulton coach Jody Wright. "It's tough with all that burden trying to prove you were good enough.''

I'd say Steele proved he was good enough Saturday. He grew up dreaming of playing in Thompson-Boling Arena — playing for Tennessee, not against the Vols.

A long-awaited homecoming didn't turn out exactly as Steele hoped. UT beat Mississippi State 72-57.

Steele, a 6-foot-2 junior guard, fired in 13 points in the first half. He spent much of the second half bench-bound due to tightness in both legs, adding two free throws to finish with a team-high 15 points.

"I really showed what my game is in the first half,'' he said. "If my legs didn't tighten up I was going to continue to do that in the second half.''

Steele acknowledged that he did feel a bit of a burden to prove he was good enough. As in good enough to play for Tennessee.

He was Class AA Mr. Basketball as a senior. He was The News Sentinel's PrepXtra player of the year as a junior and senior. He helped the Falcons win state titles as a sophomore and junior.

But UT coach Bruce Pearl was recruiting nationally. He had commitments from blue-chippers Josh Selby and Aaron Craft.

"I wish he would have offered me first,'' Steele said. "I would have been glad to stay here and play for the home team.''

As it turned out, UT landed neither Selby nor Craft and Steele signed with Auburn in November 2009.

To my memory, he's the first Knox County product to sign an SEC basketball scholarship since Doug Roth in 1985.

Then Auburn fired coach Jeff Lebo in March of 2010 and Steele was released. Alabama and Ole Miss were interested, but Steele signed with Rick Stansbury and Mississippi State.

He looked forward to his first homecoming as a freshman, but tore the ACL in his left knee just before State played (and won) in Knoxville.

Stansbury was forced out after Steele's sophomore year. There was some conversation between Steele and coach Cuonzo Martin about coming home to UT. But Martin's friend Rick Ray got the State job.

"I found out that (Martin) and coach Ray were cool,'' Steele said, "so I decided I'm gonna stick it out at Mississippi State.''

He was in the minority. Most of his teammates hightailed it out of Starkville, leaving Ray facing a complete rebuild.

"That tells you about the kid,'' Wright said, "because everybody else was bailing out of there like it was a nuclear leak down there.''

Steele averages a team-high 11.1 points. He lit up Georgia for a career-high 21 last Saturday. His shooting prowess is the first thing you notice, but he credits Wright for making him knuckle down on defense.

"That's what got me to college,'' Steele said.

His summer agendas have included playing in the Rocky Top League and plenty of pick-up games against the Vols, mostly at the student rec building.

Saturday, he finally made it on to the big court in front of the big crowd.

"To hear my name called and it said 'Knoxville,' that felt good,'' Steele said.

We're left to wonder what if his name were called every time the Vols played at home.

But we know this: He's good enough.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

Get Copyright Permissions © 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
Want to use this article? Click here for options!

© 2013 govolsxtra.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Comments » 9

wigmeister writes:

Another example of our coaches ignoring the local talent. He would have bled orange, given the chance.

VolInIndy writes:

Let's hear it from the Pearl lovers. Good thing Jalen didn't attend the infamous BBQ.

ashvol7 writes:

in response to VolInIndy:

Let's hear it from the Pearl lovers. Good thing Jalen didn't attend the infamous BBQ.

The wonderful world of Bruce Pearl missed this one bad. Way to go Bruce, another Pearl mistake.

johnlg00 writes:

I have always been one to tout local and in-state kids, but I sorta have to give Pearl a pass on this one. As Mike said, Pearl had Selby and Craft already committed for that class. While Selby did nothing at all at Kansas--seems I heard he was on some NBA team these days, though I'm not sure--Craft has done well at Ohio State. Both were considered among the top recruits for their positions in the country. It makes sense that if a coach is in a position to recruit guys like them, he almost has to take them over a marginal local prospect. Besides, the Vols' main need, then and now, is for a solid, dependable PG, but Jalen is more of a shooting guard, so I don't know if the Vols would have been better off with him than with Golden. Still, it wouldn't hurt a thing for the UT staff in both football and basketball to take a hard look at the local kids, simply to show that loyalty to the school and the state counts for something, if it does, and to strengthen relations with local and in-state coaches so that when they DO get SEC-quality players, they will look at UT FIRST because a recruiting call from UT was not the FIRST time they HAVE called.

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

I can't say BP was wrong for offering Selby and Kraft ahead of Steele, but the man can play. No doubt he would have been a welcome addition to UT's team with no sign of a PG in sight.

FeelVol writes:

Class act by our Coach to acknowledge Steele after the game.That sort of thing goes a long way in local talent considering UT.I'm glad you're with us Coach Martin.Go Vols!!!

hueypilot writes:

in response to BIVOLAR_BEARE:

I can't say BP was wrong for offering Selby and Kraft ahead of Steele, but the man can play. No doubt he would have been a welcome addition to UT's team with no sign of a PG in sight.

I dunno. Wasn't Kraft or his old man the one that got BP caught in the lie that got him fired? If so, and I think that's the case, I wish we'd never heard of Aaron.

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

in response to hueypilot:

I dunno. Wasn't Kraft or his old man the one that got BP caught in the lie that got him fired? If so, and I think that's the case, I wish we'd never heard of Aaron.

Yes, that is correct, but BP made his bed and now has to lay in it. A simple yes that was my house and UT still has BP at the helm, he made the bad choice not AK.

manoffewwords writes:

BBB

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.

Features