A letdown would've been understandable coming off of four straight wins away from Coleman Coliseum. Throw in the fact that the Tide would be without second leading scorer Shannon Hale with an undisclosed medical issue and a letdown would almost be expected.
Just don't tell that to Avery Johnson and company, who delivered what was possibly their most impressive performance to date.
Down two starters against a team expected to contend for its conference title, the Tide would need to set the tone early on the defensive end. For the most part, they did. Alabama would hold Winthrop to 8-22 shooting in the first half, six of the makes coming from the smallest man on the floor, Keon Johnson. Alabama's length bothered the Eagles' shooters from the opening tip, holding them to 1-8 from three in the opening half.
Offensively the Tide was understandably slow out of the gate. Alabama was bitten by the turnover bug early in the half, which can likely be attributed to working in two new starters. However it was one of the mainstays of the starting lineup that provided an offensive spark in the first half: Jimmie Taylor. Taylor took advantage of his size and was able to keep several possessions alive on the offensive glass, while finishing his opportunities down low (3-3 on FGs in the 1st half) for the first time this season. Alabama would take a slim 32-27 lead into the locker room at the half.
The bigger, stronger Tide would impose their will on the visitors from Rock Hill, South Carolina in the second half. It was evident that one of the coaching staff's halftime adjustments was to utilize the Alabama size advantage by setting lots of back screens to force the smaller Eagles to switch, opening up easy post touches for the Tide players. Alabama would even post up reigning SEC player of the week Retin Obasohan on several possessions in the second half and Winthrop could never come up with an answer. Obasohan would finish the day with 12 points, almost all of them coming in the second half. Jimmie Taylor continued his solid work in the second half, earning his third career double-double (14 pts, 11 reb) at the Capstone.
Not all the fun was had down low though. Justin Coleman turned in his best performance of the year in his second consecutive start filling in for Dazon Ingram. Coleman would finish with team highs in both points (18) and assists (5), playing with a confidence we have yet to see from the sophomore. Alabama would stretch the lead all the way out to 23 with about 10 minutes remaining and the game was never truly in doubt after that, despite the Eagles making a nice comeback at the end to make it respectable.
Simply put, this is a game Alabama probably loses last year. No game has shown the difference between the Anthony Grant era and the Avery Johnson era quite as clearly as this one. Avery Johnson's Alabama team overcame injuries and a small, lifeless home crowd (that needs to change) to win a game they couldn't afford to lose.
Anthony Grant's Alabama teams lost games like this and would have their NCAA tournament hopes on life support in mid December. The 2015-16 Tide though? They head into Monday's huge match up with Oregon in Birmingham with their tournament dreams alive and well.
Ed. Note: The Vulcan Classic marks the first time in four years that Alabama will appear in Birmingham. The game is set for Monday, Dec. 21 at the BJCC and has an 8:00 Central tipoff. Television coverage is available through ESPNU and ESPN3. Tickets are $18 and available only through Ticketmaster. (Season tickets holders already have access to this one and need not purchase an additional ducat.)