The numbers don't lie. In Bama's first nine conference games, the Tide averaged 63.3 points per outing. Since Winston was inserted into the starting lineup three games back versus Auburn, that total has increased by 13 points per game to 76.3.
Basketball is a team game, of course, so last year's "Mr. Basketball" in the state of Alabama hasn't been the only factor. (Winston also started one game earlier in the season, a 69-70 loss at Vanderbilt.) But there is no doubt the versatile forward has played a key role.
Tide Head Coach Mark Gottfried commented. "What people have to remember is that Kennedy has only been available for 12 games," Gottfried said. "But the more he plays, the better he gets. He's going to just get better and better as he becomes more confident."
An NCAA mandated suspension forced the Tide to hold Winston out of their non-conference schedule. Those missed games hurt Winston and Alabama. Every true freshman--no matter how talented--needs time to adjust to big-time college basketball, and Kennedy Winston was no different. But beginning with a road loss to Florida, a game in which the small forward/shooting guard came off the bench to score 13 points, Winston has improved dramatically.
Gottfried talked about his decision to insert Winston into the starting lineup. "After the Florida game, Kennedy looked like a player who was ready to take a step forward," Gottfried said. "Facing the stretch run in the conference, at some point you've got to get your better offensive players in there."
In his last four games, Winston has averaged 14 points per outing. As a comparison, veteran Tiders Erwin Dudley and Mo Williams are averaging 16.1 and 14.6 respectively in all SEC games. Over that same stretch, Winston has averaged 36 minutes per game. Dudley's and Williams' conference numbers are 34 and 38.
"Having Kennedy in the lineup adds more dribble penetration to the offense," Williams said.
Tennessee Coach Buzz Peterson explained the problem opposing defenses face in stopping the tall, long-armed Winston. "When we played a taller lineup, he hurt us shooting from the outside," Peterson said following Saturday's loss to Alabama. "When we went with a smaller lineup, he moved closer to the basket and shot over his man."
They're not the same player, but Winston presents some of the same match-up problems that Rod Grizzard did in previous seasons for Alabama. Gottfried explained, "Kennedy brings a lot to the lineup. He's tall enough to play forward, and he can rebound as well. He can help Erwin with that part of the game. He has the potential to be an excellent passer, which allows him to create shots for others. In the last several games Kennedy has turned down open shots for assists."
For the last four games, Winston has averaged seven rebounds and 4.25 assists per outing. "We've been talking to him about his defense and rebounding," Gottfried said. "He's just so gifted a player that his offense will come. If he concentrates on defense and helping Erwin inside, his offense will be fine."
Winston has gotten the message. "Last year Rod gave them rebounding," Winston said. "Coach said that's something that was missing from the squad this year. I'm trying to concentrate on that early in games. Plus, we've concentrated on sharing the ball more---get several guys involved (in the offense), not just one or two. We're not worried about who's the high scorer. We just want to get the win."
During its championship run last season, the Tide regularly "went small," utilizing three guards and swing man Rod Grizzard along with Dudley on the inside. "Until Kennedy started playing better I never felt comfortable doing that this year," Gottfried explained. "With Winston in the game, we can essentially play with four guards. We've been moving the ball well. With better spacing, it makes it hard for other teams to double Erwin on the inside."
"These games turn into chess matches," Gottfried continued. "If we can get away with playing a smaller lineup, it creates problems for the other team on defense."
Also like Grizzard, Winston has a knack for drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. But to become a dominant player, he must improve his shooting percentage. For the year he's only 29-of-50 or 58 percent from the charity stripe.