As Liberty Universitys mens basketball team piled onto the floor last Sunday in Conway, after upsetting Charleston Southern to win the Big South Conference tournament, there must have been a number of heads shaking around the league.
The Flames entered the tournament 11-20, but caught fire at the right time of year to knock off four higher-seeded opponents and earn the leagues automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Liberty, losers of the first eight games of the season, pulled off a definitive bit of March Madness.
Most of the Big South will believe that next year could be its year too.
After a first season under head coach Pat Kelsey, Winthrop, the presumed owners of the Big South auto bid for a stretch in the mid-2000s, will be among those believers next year.
Despite graduating more than 70 percent of the scoring from last years team, the Eagles won two more games during the 2012-13 campaign, showing a grit and determination undoubtedly drawn from their spunky new coach, Kelsey.
But the honeymoon is over.
Eagles fans used to championships and NCAA tourney berths will already be thinking, surely if Liberty could do it this year, we can next year.
Three positive developments that emerged this season will help Winthrop toward that goal, while improving three areas of struggle would certainly strengthen the Eagles shot at an early March celebratory dog pile in Conway.
Three positive developments
Emergence of former role players
One of the interesting developments of Winthrops season was seeing former role players take on greater responsibility. You cant sign players to 10-day contracts like the pros; in college if someone graduates or gets injured, the next man has to step up.
Having graduated three 1,000-point scorers last year, there were a number of roles to be filled on the Eagles roster. The six players that started the majority of Winthrops games this year raised their production significantly, especially leading scorer Derrick Henry and fellow sophomores Andre Smith and Larry Brown.
The Eagles still dont have a go-to guy to look to at the end of a shot clock or game, something Kelseys team will be hunting next season. But, the depth that Kelsey and company developed this year should make the Eagles one of the most balanced teams in the Big South.
PRODUCTION JUMPS CHART
A willingness to defend
Very simply, its all about defense with Kelsey and most of Winthrops players realized pretty quickly that to get on the court they would haveguard someone. That was critical for the offensively-limited Eagles, and playing a slow-down, meat grinder style of basketball ultimately worked out pretty well.
Winthrop finished the year in the top-61 nationally in scoring defense (61.2 points per game allowed, 50th), field goal percentage defense (40.3, 61st), and 3-point shooting percentage defense (31, 49th). The Eagles will have the makings of a good team if they can maintain that defensive mindset, and figure out ways to score more consistently.
Kelsey: Our guys understood that we had to be a nasty, nasty, tough defensive team to have success this year, and I think we did that with the group we had. I think teams knew when they came in to play Winthrop, they had to pack a lunch because it was gonna take all day long. Thats something we took great pride on... and I think thats part of a championship culture.
Players buying into new coaching staffs system and ideals
Winthrop players and coaches formed a circle before every practice this season, where Kelsey shared a thought of the day and the team prayed. As the year wore on, the circle grew tighter.
The dynamic between a first-year coach and a group of players that for the most part he didnt recruit, can be tricky. But Kelseys infectious energy bashed right through any walls that might have existed after Winthrop parted with previous its skipper, Randy Peele. Players and fans could see the coach giving his all on the sideline, whether it was haranguing a referee or imploring his team to get back in transition. Convincing the team to play for Kelsey wasnt a problem, and shouldnt be moving forward.
Indicative of that, Winthrop doesnt expect any players to leave before next year, barring a complete surprise.
Kelsey: We're in a different position now, because there is a foundation built. I think the core guys that are returning understand our system, understand our philosophy, that do what we do mentality.
Three things that should improve next season
Point guard play, more efficiency in half-court offense
The return of Brandon Vega from injury and the addition of incoming freshman Keon Johnson will significantly ease the Eagles point guard issues.
The Eagles only had one playmaker this year, Reggie King, and he was hardly a threat to score, especially as he struggled due to health problems early in the season. Andre Smith was a shooting guard playing the point, and at times Joab Jerome was essentially a point-forward, though even that role changed when Brown was injured and Jerome had to closer to the basket.
Winthrop was 338th out of 347 in NCAA in assists per game and was in the bottom 9 percent nationally in assists per field goal made numerical indicators of a half-court offense that relied on one-on-one play. Vega and Johnson should help the Eagles to play at a faster pace, something Kelsey was interested in all along, turning one of the 2012-13 teams biggest weaknesses point guard play into a strength.
Kelsey: You should have three potentially dynamic point guards on the roster... Brandon and Keon especially. Those two kids are absolutely lightning with the ball and when they get it, the floor tilts downward. Our pace is definitely going to pick up; thats what Ive always known, thats what Ive always been a part of at Wake Forest and Xavier. Theres no question there will be more possessions in our game next year with the new personnel.
Losing on the road in conference play
The Eagles posted an unseemly 0-8 record on the road in conference play, and were 2-12 overall in true road games this season. Those that dont follow Winthrop would be very surprised to learn the two wins were at Ohio and Auburn.
If the Eagles continue to strengthen their defensive foundation, and improve their offensive efficiency, next season, road wins will follow.
OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY CHART
Winthrops season got off to the worst possible start when Vega went down in August with a season-ending knee injury, a season-ending ACL injury to leading scorer Derrick Henry, and a broken wrist that cost leading rebounder Larry Brown on the sidelines for several weeks.
Besides the injuries, King missed all of the preseason and the first month of the regular season with a heart arrhythmia, junior guard Christian Farmer missed fives games with an elbow ailment, and junior forward Steve Johnson missed two games after getting scratched in his eye. If the Eagles can avoid some of those misfortunes next year, theyll already be better off.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T