Stepping out of the comfort of Winthrop Coliseum and a four-game home winning streak, the Winthrop men’s basketball team travels to the North Carolina mountains Wednesday to face UNC Asheville. The two-time defending Big South Conference champions present a high hurdle for an Eagles team that has been fairly toothless away from home.
“To go in their gymnasium, we’re playing against the standard-setter, if you will, over the last several years, so we know it’s going to be a formidable challenge,” Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said Tuesday before his team’s practice.
The Eagles, 3-1 so far this season against fellow South Division schools, are mired in a seven-game losing streak on the road in Big South play – the program’s longest since a losing run that spanned 1995 to 1997. Winthrop is 2-8 on the road overall and hasn’t won a conference road game since beating Radford 77-63 on Feb. 2, 2012.
Eddie Biedenbach’s Bulldogs don’t make for very hospitable hosts. Asheville is 8-1 at Kimmel Arena where it averages 74 points and allows just 61.
“It’s well-documented that it’s difficult to win on the road,” Kelsey said. “It’s a readiness mentality at the very beginning, make sure you don’t dig yourself a hole.”
Kelsey’s scouting concerns are numerous against the Bulldogs. For starters, he was very impressed with the skill level of Asheville’s post players, especially their passing vision. D.J. Cunningham, a 6-foot-10 center, and power forward Will Weeks both drew praise from Winthrop’s coach for their ability to pass in the paint and find open players out of double teams.
“I think they’re the most skilled team in our league in terms of their ability to pass,” Kelsey said. “Their interior passing is as good as I’ve seen all year long of any team that I’ve watched on tape. They make you pay for defensive breakdowns because of their ability to find the open guy.”
Defensively, Asheville takes a lot of risks in its man-to-man defense, something it can do when it has Cunningham backing it up. The Bulldogs lead the league in blocked shots, thanks largely to Cunningham, who averages 3.3 per game in conference action. He’s denied at least three shots in 11 of his last 16 games and is 13th in NCAA in blocks per game (2.95). According to stats guru Ken Pomeroy’s web site, the Bulldogs’ big man rejects 11.75 percent of opponents’ two-point attempts, a number that ranks him 16th best nationally, ahead of a notable shot blocker like Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel, and just behind Kansas’ Jeff Withey.
Adding to Cunningham’s value, he’s scored 18 and 17 points in his last two outings, providing the Bulldogs with a complete inside presence sorely lacking throughout much of the Big South.
Asheville has a talented bunch of scorers away from the bucket, too, including guards Keith Hornsby and Trent Meyer, and 6-foot-4 small forward Jeremy Atkinson, one of the league’s top players and a Big South All-Conference lock. Atkinson has scored in double-digits every game but one, leads the team in scoring (17.3) and rebounding (7.5) and is an all-action mismatch waiting to happen for opposing teams.
Weeks, a 6-foot-6 freshman, has also come on strong in conference play, averaging 10 points and 5 rebounds per contest and winning league freshman of the week honors two out of the last three. He’s shooting a league-best 67 percent from the floor, not surprising for a guy getting a lot of close looks at the rim.
Weeks and Atkinson like to attack the basket. Sixty percent of the Bulldogs’ points come from two-point range, so it’s not surprising they’re shooting a sizzling 48 percent from the field in conference play, and nifty interior passing certainly has a hand in getting close-range looks.
The Eagles aren’t shooting like that, but offensive improvement has helped them inch back up the league standings. Assists are up and turnovers are down, critical for a Winthrop team that has 56 less assists and 26 more turnovers than opponents. Shooting percentages are up too, led by point guard Andre Smith, who is 21 of 43 from beyond the arc in conference play. The team as whole is shooting 40 percent from three in conference, compared to 33 percent overall, a significant up-tick.
“We’ve become more efficient offensively,” Kelsey explained. “We’re shooting the ball at a lot higher level and I think that’s a tribute to our guys continuing to progress and manufacturing good shots, and making them when we have the opportunity.”
To have any shot of upsetting Asheville, the Eagles will have to knock down shots in the clutch. They could take a page right out of the Bulldogs’ book: Asheville is 13-2 in its last 15 Big South road games. In last week’s 77-74 win at Presbyterian, Cunningham scored the final four points of the game to help the Bulldogs to a win while they weren’t at their best.
“Most of these conference games come down to the last four-minute war,” said Kelsey, “so we need to make plays down the stretch.”
Bret McCormick • 329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T