Last March, Alabama made a surprising run through the NCAA tournament, ousting top-ranked Stanford and defending champ Syracuse to reach the Elite Eight for the first time. "It was a new experience for all of us," says forward Kennedy Winston. "Now we want to get to that point again."
The performance has raised expectations in Tuscaloosa, where fans see a team with four returning starters and a year's worth of big-game experience and think a trip to the Final Four is a realistic goal. Much of the pressure to achieve that sits on the shoulders of Winston, the Tide's leading scorer (17.1 points per game), a first-team All-SEC pick and a preseason candidate for the prestigious Wooden Award. Athletic and quick, the 6'6" junior spent his off-season in the weight room after undergoing surgery for the second consecutive summer, to repair torn ligaments in his left knee. Listed last season at 205 pounds, he has bulked up to 230, hoping that the added strength will help him increase his 5.5 rebounds-per-game average.
After starting 10 games and averaging 11.1 points as a freshman, Winston blossomed last season and led the way for Alabama in the NCAA tournament. Against Stanford in the second round he showed his potential by shutting down Josh Childress and scoring 21 points. "Kennedy's confidence level began to rise, and he got into that zone offensively," says coach Mark Gottfried. "He's capable of doing it again. If he stays healthy, he'll have a heck of a year."
Winston's health is just one of the factors that will determine how high the Tide will rise. To fill the void left by the departure of dynamic point guard Antoine Pettway, Gottfried will start a freshman--albeit a talented one. Ronald Steele was a two-time Alabama Mr. Basketball and has already impressed his coach with his intelligence, quickness and dedication. "He's an unbelievable worker," says Gottfried. "If I walk in tomorrow morning at six, he'll probably be here practicing."
Gottfried is quick to downplay how good his team might be. Though last season ended on a high note, he points out that the Tide finished 8-8 in the SEC. Ask his players, however, and they'll tell you that the hype they're getting is well deserved. "Everybody's excited," says Winston. "We know we have the team to go as far as we want to go." --J.M.
2003-04 RECORD: 20-13 (8-8, T2 in SEC West)
TOURNAMENT: Lost to Connecticut in Elite Eight
The Tide can roll with wingmen Winston and Shelton. Inexperience at the point may hold things up.
ENEMY LINES an opposing coach's view
"Who's going to run the point? Last year Antoine Pettway was the key to the season, and he graduated. It's probably going to be Ronald Steele, and anytime you have a freshman point guard, there's a little concern.... Kennedy Winston is a good one-on-one player who has the size to take somebody inside or out.... Kids like Chuck Davis and Jermareo Davidson got better as the season went on last year, and that helped Alabama a lot.... Earnest Shelton is an outstanding shooter, a competitor, somebody who's kind of underneath the radar because of Winston and Davis. Shelton is a very, very good player."