BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- It wouldn't be too far off the mark to call Jeremy Hays the father figure of Alabama's basketball team.
As one of only two seniors and the only returning player with significant starting experience, Hays was already Alabama's only veteran.
In August, Hays took it a step further when he went home to Boaz to get married.
Now, Alabama's center is often looked at as the father figure to the Crimson Tide's seven freshmen.
"Jeremy is our elder statesmen," coach Mark Gottfried said Wednesday at the Southeastern Conference's media days. "He's the go-to-guy, the team leader and I think he's responded well to that role."
It was an easy role for Hays to adjust to, especially after he married Dina Springfield, his high school sweetheart.
"It was the best decision I ever made," Hays said. "It simplified a lot of things in my life.
"As a student-athlete, you have to manage your time to the minute," he said. "Last year, I would go three to four days without seeing her. Now I go home and she is there."
The marriage, Hays said, has matured him.
"I look forward to going home now," he said. "She's there for me to support me in my decisions. It just makes everything easier."
That, and the addition of about 15 pounds, has Hays ready to close out his Alabama career with a bang.
Protein drinks, plenty of carbohydrates and extra work in the weight room has Hays up to 248 lbs., the heaviest he's ever been.
"I feel great, a lot stronger," he said. "There's not a year I haven't been in great shape, but this year I feel like I won't get pushed off the block that often."
That should make it easier for Hays to improve upon his numbers, one of his top goals for the season.
In SEC play last year, Hays was the league's surprise rebounding leader with 10.3 a game. For the season, he averaged 12.4 points and 8.4 rebounds.
"I expect nothing less than leading the SEC in rebounding," he said. "I also want to average more points a game, get that around 17 or 18."
His second goal is to help the Tide return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995.
Hays said before last season, he asked Tide senior Brian Williams what his goal was and Williams said to go to the tournament in his final season.
When the year was over and Alabama only made the NIT Tournament, Hays said he had never seen Williams more disappointed.
"It just made him sick," Hays said. "I don't want to end my career like that, so taking this team to the NCAA tournament is very important to me."
Hays' focus on his goals is as important to Gottfried as his experience.
"Our team depends on him," Gottfried said. "We need him this year to have a good senior year, because our team success depends on his success."
Gottfried called Hays one of the most underrated centers in the league and said he's disappointed Hays doesn't get more recognition.
But Hays, a country boy from Boaz, is used to it.
"Coming from a small town, I'm kind of used to not getting a lot of recognition," he said. "All I do is play as hard as I can and let the rest speak for itself."
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