The numbers don't lie: Eagles still have a chance in Big South

The HeraldJanuary 1, 2009 

In the past four seasons, when Winthrop built a reputation for being a very good mid-major basketball program, there was always speculation about where the Eagles would be seeded when the NCAA tournament field was announced.

In 2007, the Eagles were disappointed when they were handed a No. 11 seed. Coach Gregg Marshall, after a 28-4 regular season, thought they should have been higher. But they weren't disappointed when they beat Notre Dame in the first round. Up to that point, the best seeding for any Big South team had been Winthrop's No. 14 in 2005 and 2000.

The Eagles were able to build those seedings on the strength of a difficult nonconference schedule.

Last season, when the Eagles rallied late to tie UNC Asheville for the Big South Conference regular-season title and then beat the Bulldogs in the conference tournament final, there was chatter about where the team would be seeded.

Winthrop was a No. 13 seed, which was a tribute to the rally, as well as the nonconference schedule.

With conference play set to resume on Saturday, and after taking a look at the league's performance in the first two months of the year, it's difficult to imagine the Big South champion being discussed next March as anything but a No. 16 seed. And the Big South winner could be heading to the play-in game in Dayton.

Going by the first two months of the season, the Big South, with lots of new faces and few impact seniors, isn't very strong.

That should give Winthrop fans some cause for optimism despite the Eagles' 1-10 start. The Big South could cure a lot of ills over the next two months.

Despite a handful of decent nonconference wins, the league hasn't painted a very good picture in November and December.

Try these numbers.

Through Dec. 30, the 10 conference teams had a combined record of 52-69, with VMI (9-2) and Liberty (10-4) posting the only winning records.

The league has 24 wins against non-NCAA Division I teams -- in other words, 24 wins that don't help the conference or team RPI.

The league has 28 total Division I wins, counting the nine against each other.

Big South teams have won 19 games outside the conference against 17 NCAA Division I opponents -- in other words, 19 games that matter -- but those teams haven't exactly been running roughshod over the rest of college basketball, posting a combined record of 76-120, a winning percentage of .381. San Jose State (6-4), East Carolina (8-4), Western Carolina (5-4), Virginia (6-4), George Mason (8-3) and Kentucky (11-3) have winning records.

Seven of those 17 teams have won three or fewer games. Four Big South wins came over Army (3-8, Presbyterian and VMI) and Campbell (3-8, VMI twice). Two came over North Carolina Central (0-15, High Point) and USC-Upstate (1-10, Liberty).

VMI's win at Kentucky, Coastal Carolina's home victory over East Carolina and Liberty's road win at Virginia and home win over George Mason rank as the league's best. Liberty has five of the league's nonconference Division I wins.

Winthrop, UNC Asheville and Radford have yet to beat an NCAA Division I team outside the league.

Winthrop's lone win came against North Greenville, the Eagles' only non-Division I opponent. Presbyterian is the only league team that scheduled only Division I opponents.

Liberty has four non-DI wins. Radford, VMI, UNCA, High Point and Coastal have three, Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb two.

Think what the league record might be without those.

Coastal and Gardner-Webb also lost to non-DI teams.

Given the league's youth -- six of the top 10 scorers and seven of the top 10 rebounders are freshmen or sophomores -- perhaps those numbers should be expected.

It goes without saying, the league race will probably produce the unexpected.

Right now, the most unexpected event would be Winthrop winning its fifth straight championship. With a 1-10 record, 10 straight losses and eight of them by double digits, the Eagles appear to be anything but a title contender.

But that's where this schedule might pay off. Winthrop has played eight games on the road, and they weren't playing Cincinnati Christian or Coker or Bridgewater or Maryland Bible. They were, for the most part, playing teams with more talent and more experience.

Winthrop's schedule strength has been rated the 16th-toughest in the nation by Sagarin, 29th by collegerpi.com and ninth by Basketball News. Even without a Division I win, the computer ratings have the Eagles ahead of Charleston Southern, Radford and High Point.

Sometimes you learn lessons and get better by taking some hard knocks, and the Eagles have been beaten like a rented mule in November and December.

That could make for an interesting January and February for the Eagles, who were picked in the league's preseason poll -- by default, more or less -- to win the conference.

The Big South hasn't proven much in November and December, so here are the numbers that matter.

With league play resuming, VMI and Presbyterian are 2-0 and Charleston Southern is 1-0. Liberty, Gardner-Webb, UNCA and Radford are 1-1. Coastal is 0-1, High Point and Winthrop 0-2. Road teams have won five of the first nine games.

The Eagles are two games out of first, with 16 conference games to play. That's a lot of time.

Last year, the Eagles trailed UNC Asheville by three games with three weeks left in the regular season, climbed back into first place, won when it mattered in the conference tournament finals and scratched their way into that NCAA tournament conversation.

In a league like the Big South, the numbers say there's always hope.

Gary McCann • 329-4074 | gmccann@heraldonline.com

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