When Pat Kelsey was hired to lead Winthrop's basketball program prior to last season, once lofty expectations for the program had been tempered. The Eagles were coming off of their first 20-loss season since 1998, and few experienced impact players remained on the roster. After a 14-17 campaign in his first season, the Eagles were picked by media and coaches to finish fifth in the six-team Big South Southern Division at the league’s preseason gathering in Myrtle Beach Thursday. That won't be good enough for the second-year coach.
“When you tip it off, if your goal isn't to play in the national tournament, I think you have your sights set on the wrong thing,” Kelsey said. “Make no mistake, it's talked about, and it's understood, the goal is to play in the greatest spectacle in American sports outside of the Super Bowl, and that's the NCAA Tournament.”
While the roster has suffered no major losses, and the addition of new players has Kelsey optimistic, he also thinks the team could be improved this season because he personally has learned a few new tricks.
“Your first year you think you're prepared,” said Kelsey. “You think your plan is air-tight. Mike Tyson once said everybody has a plan until they get punched in the teeth. Unless you go through it, and you experience those things, the adversity that can hit any team, every team, trial by fire is the best training. To have that experience under my belt for one year has made me a more prepared and better head coach in year two.”
Part of being a better coach is attracting and developing players. With a mixture of veterans who now understand his system, and a large group of newcomers recruited to improve the team’s overall talent level, Kelsey thinks his team will be able to play the up-tempo style he’s sought since his first day in Rock Hill.
Injuries have already begun to surface. Last year’s leading scorer Derrick Henry is rehabbing a major knee injury and it is unclear whether he will make any impact this season. Freshman Duby Okeke broke his leg and is not close to a return to practice.
Building depth was a priority of the coaching staff this offseason. Starters Larry Brown, James Bourne, Joab Jerome, and Andre Smith are all back. After sitting out last season, wing Keon Moore and point guard Brandon Vega will push returners for playing time immediately. Freshmen Josh Davenport, Keon Johnson, Ivan Saicic, and Jarad Scott are all expected to see action early in the year. Kelsey is confident his second year will be an improvement on last season.
“You have a year under your belt to implement your system,” said Kelsey. “You have a group of players who have lived it and breathed it and slept it. We have an exciting influx of talent that is going to make us a more potent offensive basketball team.”
While Kelsey's team finished fifth in the division last season, and has been selected by coaches and media to be in that slot again this year, that sentiment is not unanimous. Charleston Southern head coach Barclay Radebaugh, a former Eagle assistant, still holds Winthrop to a higher standard.
“When you think about Winthrop, you think about very good basketball,” said Radebaugh. “I think Winthrop is going to be the most improved team in the league. I see enthusiasm, the way they were coached last year, and who they recruited. It's good for Winthrop and it's good for this league.”
The Eagles have a closed-door scrimmage at UNC Greensboro on Saturday. The regular season gets underway Nov. 9 against Division III Roanoke College. Winthrop’s Big South play commences Jan. 9 at Presbyterian College.