Don't write off Peele and Winthrop basketball team just yet

gmccann@heraldonline.comDecember 9, 2008 

The Winthrop basketball bandwagon is encountering some tough road right now.

The Eagles are 1-7, their worst start since the 1997-1998 season, which is also the last season they started 0-2 in the Big South Conference.

The Eagles, with no more conference games until the first of January, are starting in a two-game hole, with VMI and Presbyterian off to 2-0 starts. Charleston Southern is 1-0.

But every team other than those unbeatens has at least one loss, and in the expanded Big South, there are 16 conference games left to be played. Winthrop has yet to play a league game at home, and the rest of the league understands how difficult it has been to win in the Winthrop Coliseum the past 10 years.

Still, Eagles fans aren't accustomed to looking up at the rest of the league. The hardcore fans love going on winthropfans.com and proclaiming how good the program is and just how knowledgeable they are about their team.

Eagles fans don't want excuses. They want "Ws," and if coach Randy Peele can't provide them, then by gosh, let's move on. And some "loyal" fans believe there are those in the athletics department who are already counting the days until Peele's gone or at least helping to push things in that direction.

I dropped by winthropfans.com on Monday just to take the pulse of those who are "in the know."

One poster, who claimed to have seen stuff with his own eyes, wrote that Peele had been called to the office of athletics director Tom Hickman and the pressure had been applied, the implication being win, or else. We think the poster got his information from the friend of a friend whose first cousin's mother-in-law once dated a guy who attended Winthrop for a couple of semesters. Wherever the information came from, it was, well, wrong.

A couple of the posters think Peele is great with Xs and Os but only as an assistant. They claim he makes no adjustments during a game, particularly the one at Radford on Saturday. I know of at least four adjustments he made, and I don't claim to be all-knowing about basketball. I do know adjustments aren't always the answer. But I also know coaches, including Peele, make them.

Some are thinking Peele isn't the man for the job, that he should be fired immediately, if not sooner. Such is the thinking of those who climb on the bandwagon when things are good and jump off at the first sign of hard times.

Some are going back to his days at UNC-Greensboro when he won the Big South in his first season, then had three straight losing years before being fired. They have visions of the same thing at Winthrop.

But what they don't know is Peele had four starters miss 70 games due to injuries in those three years, the program made the move from the Big South to the Southern Conference in his third year and he was expected to play a nonconference schedule that brought in a lot of money and also brought in some losses. Four seasons wasn't enough to make the leap from a Big South that wasn't very good to a Southern that was.

Here's the deal with Winthrop.

Peele signed a contract extension after last season. He has four more seasons after this one.

He's not going to be fired.

Nor should he be.

Right now, expectations are the biggest thing Peele faces.

Winthrop has won championships eight of the past 10 years and dominated the Big South. Fans don't like losing. But most fans, who wouldn't know a back screen from a screen door, can't look at the team and understand why it's not winning. They just look at the guy in the coat and tie who's calling the shots and figure it must be his fault.

When in doubt, fire the coach. He's got to be the reason shots aren't going down and players are taking the ball where they've been told repeatedly not to. He's got to be the reason a first-year freshman gets schooled by a fourth-year senior. Unless you're a remarkable talent as a freshman, you don't win those battles with seniors very often, not when you're playing "big-boy basketball."

This Winthrop team should not have been picked to win the league (I picked them fourth). But because they were, fans automatically assume they will, while forgetting they lost two 1,000-point scorers in the backcourt, a forward who was invited to an NBA camp this fall, a 6-foot-9 center who blew out his knee and a key reserve. Those guys were replaced by three true freshmen, a redshirt freshman, a junior college transfer and a graduate transfer.

Fans can blame Peele for one thing -- and he's certainly blaming himself -- a schedule that was way too ambitious for a team relying on too many first-year players. Peele, after the loss at VMI last week, told his team in the locker room he'd made a mistake with the schedule. He'd put together a schedule they weren't ready for, and it wasn't their fault. "That's on me," he said.

It wasn't so much the difficulty as the organization. They played two home games in the first six and will play eight of their first 11 on the road. Young teams build confidence at home.

Part of the schedule was beyond his control. The Akron and Davidson games were return games. He signed on for another series with East Carolina, although the Eagles have pretty much owned that one recently despite this year's 63-60 loss. He added South Carolina, N.C. State, College of Charleston and Florida and has a return game at Old Dominion on Dec. 20. He would have been better off with a couple of non-NCAA Division I teams at home rather than, perhaps, the Gamecocks or State or Charleston.

Here's the reality of that November-December schedule.

Before the calendar turns to January, the Eagles could be 1-10. They won't be favored in the games against ODU, College of Charleston and the Gators.

But when January comes, Big South play resumes. Four of the first five league games in January are at home. There is time to turn this thing around.

Had you looked closely at this season, you could have seen the potential for this kind of start.

But Peele said on Monday the goal of competing for a championship remains the same and that he and his coaches and players "aren't any less determined."

He believes there's still time to pull the bandwagon out of the potholes.

Gary McCann • 329-4074

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