In the past three years, Winthrop has played meaningful games in the ESPNU BracketBuster series, two of them on national television.
In each season, the Eagles were building momentum toward the postseason -- meaning NCAA tournament -- and the games against very good mid-major opponents may have helped the Eagles in terms of tournament seeding.
In one of the best-ever games in the Winthrop Coliseum, the Eagles beat Northern Illinois 98-97 in double overtime in 2006, a game that wasn't on TV but should have been. They won at Missouri State the following season, 77-66, and lost at home to Davidson last year, 60-47.
The Eagles return to the BracketBuster today, but the focus isn't the same. With an 8-18 record, the Eagles are going to have to pull off a major miracle to return to the NCAA tournament. The same goes for today's 2 p.m. opponent in the Winthrop Coliseum, Appalachian State, which is 11-15 and, like Winthrop, in need of some major help to be playing in mid-March.
The Eagles are tied for sixth in the Big South Conference, with two games to play next week, and the Mountaineers are fourth in the North Division of the Southern Conference with two conference games left in the regular season.
"Is this a great time to be stepping out of the league?" Winthrop coach Randy Peele said. "No, but it's better than not playing."
He also likes that it's another regional matchup of teams who have been successful in recent years.
"We've played Davidson, Charlotte, College of Charleston and now Appalachian State," Peele said, "all schools that have been successful in basketball in the last five years. It's a good game to play."
It's also one more good nonconference game for next year's schedule. As part of the BracketBuster deal, the Eagles will play at Appalachian State next year.
The Eagles have won two straight and appear to be reaching Peele's goal of "playing their best in February," although that had to be adjusted after freshman point guard Reggie Middleton went down with a fractured lower right leg four games ago.
"We've got three (regular season) games left," Peele said, "and I know this one is a non-conference game, but it's important to help us get better."
Peele is excited about the last two games -- wins over Presbyterian and Gardner-Webb -- because his team was behind late in both games but found a way to win. At Gardner-Webb on Wednesday, the Eagles trailed 45-40 with under five minutes to play, but got 12 points from Justin Burton, who has taken over for Middleton, down the stretch to win 60-55.
"Justin has had two really good games back to back," Peele said.
After the game, Burton assessed his season, saying "I think I've done pretty good so far."
"My job," he added, "is to try and control the team and try and win these last three games."
He and the Eagles face an Appalachian State team that loves to spread the floor, beat teams off the dribble and keep the pace up-tempo. The Mountaineers average 76 points, shoot 45 percent overall and make almost eight 3-pointers per game. And they out-rebound opponents by almost eight a game, with 6-10, 285-pound Isaac Butts in the middle pulling nine per game.
Butts will be a big test for the Eagles' front line, especially 6-7 freshman Chris Malcolm, who has started three of the past four games. He's averaged 5.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks. He had five blocks against Gardner-Webb. Malcolm will give up about 70 pounds to Butts.
"He has caused some people problems with his length," Peele said, "but he's weakest where Butts is strong. Butts is wide and extremely physical."
Kellen Brand (15.1), a 6-1 guard, leads the Mountaineers in scoring, and Donald Sims, a 6-1 guard who has started half of ASU's 26 games, averages 12.3.
The Mountaineers snapped a three-game losing streak with a 70-69 win at UNC Greensboro on Thursday. Today's game will be the fourth in a week for coach Houston Fancher's team.
The Eagles return to conference play on Tuesday, hosting Charleston Southern. Appalachian State, averaging 76 points a game, plays a similar style -- spread the floor and drive, get up and down the floor -- and so does Charleston Southern.
"The good thing about this game is the preparation will help us get ready for Tuesday," Peele said. "Coming off the last two games, I'm really excited about where this team is."
|WANT TO GO?|
• Who: Appalachian State (11-15) at Winthrop (8-18)
• When: 2 p.m.
• Where: Winthrop Coliseum
• Radio: WRHI-FM (94.3), airtime 1:30 p.m.
Gary McCann • 329-4074