As cold as the thin air was Friday afternoon outside the Winthrop Coliseum, the tension and urgency was soupy-thick inside, where the school’s men’s basketball team was practicing.
Fresh off a Wednesday trip to the University of Dayton where the Eagles (6-6), as head coach Pat Kelsey described it, “got their teeth kicked in” 81-47, there was a nearly palpable desire to get things right. The Dayton loss was Winthrop’s fourth in a row, smudging a 5-1 start to the season. With the Big South Conference opener looming next Wednesday, a road game at Presbyterian, Winthrop narrowed its focus on solidifying foundational tenets of its program.
Kelsey said he dug up practice schedules from the season’s first week to utilize Thursday and Friday in an effort to help his players remember what got them off to such a great start.
“We’ve really, really made these two days about us,” he said. “We wanted to get back to our meat and potatoes. A lot of times when you start getting into games where it’s always about preparation and a lot of times it’s about the other team; these two days have really, really been about us.”
Winthrop was scheduled to host United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA) opponent Barber-Scotia on Saturday, a team without a win in 17 games this season. The Eagles haven’t lost to a non-NCAA Division I foe in 35 games, and playing a winless USCAA team might be just the elixir that a funk-laden Winthrop squad needs. But several of Barber-Scotia’s players were stuck in the northeast due to snowy weather and unable to fly. They didn’t have enough players to compete Saturday.
The gap between Dayton and Barber-Scotia would’ve been oceanic. The Flyers are a team hovering around the top 25 and will likely be a factor in the NCAA Tournament later this year. In a wretched collision of Winthrop’s worst offensive and defensive performances of the season, Dayton shot nearly 60 percent from the floor and out-rebounded the Eagles 30-19. That left the underdog visitors with virtually no shot of pulling off the upset in front of close to 200 family, friends and supporters who came to watch Kelsey, from nearby Cincinnati, coach his team, as well as the family and friends of several other players and coaches from Ohio.
“Down deep in my gut and my heart, I’m a defensive coach,” he said. “To see those type of crooked numbers on a statistic sheet makes my blood boil.”
The loss was just the latest in a sour patch for the Eagles, one that saw them drop four straight games and Kelsey’s blood pressure likely ascend. A quick check of the stats from the first six games - five wins and a loss - and the last six - one win and five losses - lay bare some of the causes of such a rut. The Eagles’ hot shooting to start the season dried up, and they stopped defending as well as they had been, while also getting dominated on the backboards.
A Winthrop Media Relations release Friday noted the Eagles were 17th best in the country in turnover margin on Dec. 15, but they’ve averaged 19 giveaways a game since that date. The most gut-wrenching was a key turnover during the second overtime against Hampton in a contest that featured 18 lead changes and 14 ties, where every possession was critical. Kelsey felt his team carried the Hampton disappointment into the Dayton blowout loss.
“That can’t happen,” he said. “You have to turn the page on the last game.”
Well, not so fast. Before turning the page on the Dayton game completely, Kelsey and his players watched every single shot that the Flyers took against Winthrop on Wednesday night. He asked his players, “Within our system, could we have created a miss? Could we have got an 0 for 1 instead of a 1 for 1?”
Kelsey then had a reaffirming 40-minute conversation with defensive guru Dick Bennett, the longtime Wisconsin coach, on Thursday.
“He’s retired and he likes getting calls from coaches,” said Kelsey. “But his point was he and I believe in our defensive system. But if everybody isn’t a thousand percent in and everybody isn’t on the same page all the time, it doesn’t matter what defense you’re in.”
On Friday the effort, intensity and volume were all present at increased levels. The team at least looked “a thousand percent in.”
“Luckily we have the type of kids that won’t respond to that type of adversity with their tail between their legs because their coach won’t stand for that,” said Kelsey. “That’s not how we roll.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T