With four out of the next five games at home, the Winthrop men will get a stretch of normalcy amidst the withering grind of the college basketball campaign. In a sport where home court is a premium advantage that must be defended, the Eagles have that opportunity over the next two weeks if they handle business starting Wednesday against Coastal Carolina at 7 p.m.
When you have the opportunity to play in your own gym, shoot on your own rim and sleep in your own bed the night before, it just gives you a sense of calm, said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey.
In the two schools 74th all-time meeting, the Eagles (8-11, 2-5 Big South) face a Coastal Carolina (9-9, 4-3) team that understands the difficulty of winning away games. Cliff Ellis Chanticleers are 1-7 in true road games this season, the lone success coming at hapless Longwood earlier this month. Apparently grateful visitors, theyre allowing their hosts 70 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the field.
I think a lot of it has to do with inexperience, said Ellis, who is in his sixth season at the Coastal helm and has won over 600 games in his lengthy career.
The Chanticleers have eight new faces on the roster, and only return three players with Division I experience. A 2009 Wall Street Journal report found that of a number of major sports, college basketball had the lowest road winning percentage at just 34 percent. Younger players, and in some instances more fervent crowds, seem to be key contributors.
Guys are more comfortable at home for whatever reason, Ellis said Tuesday evening, shortly after his team arrived in Rock Hill. Weve played everybody close; we just havent been able to get over the hump.
Winthrops road record of 2-8 isnt much better. So while the Eagles 6-3 mark at Winthrop Coliseum is a far cry from the three-year stretch (2004-05 to 2006-07) when they went 46-1 at home, Kelseys team knows it can string some wins together and climb back into the thick of the South Division standings.
We should have that pep in our step and be a lot more energized, said point guard Andre Smith.
Winthrop has won six of its last seven at home against the Chanticleers, and the Eagles are allowing just 57 points per game to opponents at Winthrop Coliseum this season. Defense hasnt been an issue for Winthrop at home outside of the 90-52 blowout loss to Virginia Commonwealth in mid-November. Offense has been a prickly spot though.
Seven Eagles average between 5.8 and 11.5 points per game, a two-faced stat depending on whos looking. In one regard, Winthrop is difficult to gameplan for because there is no one recognized threat.
Theyve got weapons in and out, Ellis said. They play a number of people, they have depth, and I dont think its a game where you can say we got to shut inside out, or shut the outside out; I think theyve got some balance.
Then again, itd be nice to have a consistent scoring option, game in, game out. Five different Eagles have led the team in scoring, with Gideon Gamble and Derrick Henry the teams two leading scorers each taking seven turns as the top point contributor. Coastal has had three different high scorers, but sharpshooter Anthony Raffa has led them on 13 occasions and there is no debate hes the go-to guy.
Smith has scored in double figures the last two games for Winthrop, while hitting 10-of-16 shots from the field. And against Radford, fellow sophomore guard Henry scored in double figures for the first time in seven conference games, perhaps signaling a return to form despite the lingering knee injury that has plagued him. But Winthrop still hasnt developed a Raffa.
We have to be more consistent. We cant have one guy scoring 15 and the next game hes scoring 2 or 3, Smith said. We have to focus on being more consistent scorers. Derrick is probably one of our best scorers so we probably have to focus on getting him going every game.
Ellis crew has embodied the inconsistency rampant in the Big South this season. They followed up disappointing conference losses to Liberty and Gardner-Webb with a 23-point thumping of VMI in Conway. The Chanticleers then slipped up in a three-point loss at UNC Asheville, before rebounding with a 14-point home win over Campbell last Saturday.
Senior guards Raffa and Kierre Greenwood have strong-armed the Chanticleers from veering off altogether. Easily the best, most experienced backcourt in the league, Greenwood is third in the league in assists, while Raffas 19.3 points per is second best in the Big South. His 20 point-effort against Campbell last weekend was his fourth straight.
What makes him most special, Kelsey said about Raffa, is his charisma, his moxie. He takes big shots for them, and he makes big shots for them. We all love to coach a guy like that, but when hes on the other team he can kind of be a thorn in your side.
The Chanticleers out-rebound opponents by seven per game (top-25 nationally), lead the league in offensive rebounding, and are only allowing Big South foes 59.4 points per outing tops in conference play. Coastal is also 20th nationally with over nine steals per game, led by you guessed it Raffa and Greenwood.
Winthrop has battled turnovers all year, appearing recently to begin wrestling the problem into submission. But the blight reared up again Saturday at Radford. The Eagles only had 13 turnovers, but gave up 21 points off turnovers and were outscored 14-0 in fastbreak points in a 58-57 loss to the Highlanders.
It was a late-game meltdown to which Ellis could relate. His team has lost five road games by single digits this season, not unusual for a league with just one team (Charleston Southern) winning more than losing away from home. Winthrops upcoming string of home games may seem like a huge advantage, but Kelsey as usual isnt getting too far ahead.
Thats great that we have our next four of five at home, he said before a high-energy Tuesday practice. But all were worrying about right now is Wednesday night at 7 oclock, and nothing further.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T