Confident and ready

Eagles prepare for yet another NCAA tourney

David CloningerMarch 18, 2008 

Winthrop's Michael Jenkins drives the lane against UNC Asheville in the Big South Conference title game.

FILE, ANDY BURRISS • ABURRISS@HERALDONLINE.COM

It's all just routine now.

Winthrop's basketball team gathered at Winthrop Coliseum on Monday for the first of two practices, preparing for its date in the NCAA tournament. The Eagles (22-11) play No. 21 Washington State (24-8) at 7:20 p.m. on Thursday.

Senior Michael Jenkins, who will become one of four Eagles to play in four NCAA tournaments during his college career (the others are teammates Chris Gaynor and Taj McCullough, plus Pierre Wooten in 1999-2002), was jitterbugging outside the huddle as coach Randy Peele addressed his troops. Then he stuck around for some extra shooting.

"It's an experience, glad we're playing, glad we're going, but we got to stay calm," Jenkins said, cool and confident after going through it so many other times. "My career will be over if we don't get it done."

Winthrop tied the state's two flagship universities, South Carolina and Clemson, by clinching its eighth NCAA tournament bid. But unlike those two, Winthrop has gone eight times in 10 years.

Freshman Charles Corbin said he had no idea the Eagles were in a three-way tie for the most successful NCAA team in state history, but it was a pleasing development.

"That feels good," he said. "Day after day, we put work in and it shows. Eight NCAA bids, it shows."

Winthrop didn't have a lot of time to revel in its newfound glory. The Eagles are set to leave for Denver this morning, departing from the Winthrop Coliseum at 8 a.m., and Peele is hoping to have a practice somewhere in Denver this afternoon.

On Wednesday, the Eagles are scheduled for the mandatory NCAA practice at the Pepsi Center and they play on Thursday. Monday and today are about practicing, traveling and cramming as much info about Washington State into their heads as possible.

"Us and Washington State are so similar, it's unbelievable," Peele said on his radio show. "We're playing ourself with two 6-foot-10 post players."

As soon as Winthrop found its destination, the coaches beelined to their offices and started preparing tape. Corbin estimated it was five minutes before they called out, "Ready!" and began game-planning.

What Peele and his assistants found was a massive Cougars squad that likes to play tough defense. Winthrop does the same without the height.

Potential matchups for the game are the 6-foot-3 Jenkins guarding 6-6 Kyle Weaver and perhaps 6-5 Mantoris Robinson on 6-10 Aron Baynes. The meticulous Peele was already stressing over the numbers from the stat sheet in his lap.

"They've made 454 free throws and their opponents have only attempted 453. That concerns me greatly," he said. "My biggest fear is our ability to score ... that's probably why we're 22-11 and not 28-5."

Still, the veterans have won a game in the NCAA tournament and are telling the first-years to ignore the stats and figures. When the ball flies up, it may come down to facts and figures and it may come down to who wants it more.

There was no problem with confidence. Corbin and Jenkins were each asked which of the 65 teams was going to win the NCAA tournament.

"North Carolina, man ... if we don't happen to make it to the Final Four, it's going to be Carolina," Jenkins said, serious as a heart attack. "Memphis and Kansas is next."

"I can't put myself out," Corbin said. "We're going to come to play, we're going to come to win."

WINTHROP VS. WASHINGTON STATE

• What: NCAA tournament first round

• When: Thursday, 7:20 p.m.

• Where: The Pepsi Center, Denver

• Notes: The 13th-seeded Eagles earned the Big South's automatic bid by winning the league tourmament and will face the Pac-10's fourth-seeded Cougars, who received an at-large bid.

• Departure: Winthrop will leave the Winthrop Coliseum at 8 a.m. today, then fly out of Charlotte. Fans wishing to bid the team farewell are advised to arrive at the Coliseum no later than 7:45.

David Cloninger • 909-4218

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