Winthrop Eagles tip off Big South Conference play Wednesday at Presbyterian

bmccormick@heraldonline.comJanuary 7, 2014 

An easy blowout of non-NCAA Barber-Scotia last Saturday could have been a helpful cleanser for Winthrop’s men’s basketball team, currently stuck in a four-game losing streak. It could have also been a shot of confidence, had it not been for inclement weather stranding half of Barber-Scotia’s team in the northeastern U.S., and postponing the game.

When Winthrop (6-6) makes the short trip to Presbyterian College on Wednesday night for both team’s Big South Conference opener, it’ll have to rediscover some confidence without the help of a patsy-beating Barber-Scotia might have offered.

“Whatever you want to call it, swagger, confidence, that’s a powerful thing in sports, in life,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “It would have been nice to get on a bit of a roll, but as I’ve told many people since this weekend, Mother Nature is undefeated.”

Presbyterian (4-10) might look like an automatic win on paper, but it looked that way in 2012 too, before knocking off Winthrop 64-57 in Clinton, last February.

“I think we’ve had two really good days, or three, really good days of practice,” said Kelsey. “We have the right mindset to go down to PC. It’s gonna be a tough one.”

This year’s Presbyterian squad leans almost entirely on the trio of guards Jordan Downing and Reggie Dillard and post player William Truss. Dillard, Downing and Truss have scored 68 percent of Presbyterian’s points this season, while Downing and Dillard have hit 65 of the team’s 93 3-pointers and are both shooting a high percentage. The trio’s strongsuits help balance the Blue Hose offensive attack.

“It’s a double-edged sword in a lot of ways because Truss really does a great job of trying to own the paint,” Kelsey said. “They do a good job of generating angle baskets for him.”

Downing might be licking his lips ahead of a matchup with Winthrop. He’s blown up offensively several times this season, including a 37-point effort in a win over UNC Greensboro. Opposing shooters are hitting 37.6 percent of their 3-point attempts against Kelsey’s team, putting the Eagles’ 3-point defense in the bottom 17 percent of nearly 350 NCAA Division I teams. Winthrop’s “pack-line” defense might seem inviting to opposing 3-point shooters, but that’s not the case if it’s executed correctly, says Kelsey.

“If we’re playing our defense properly, and you’re in your position to begin with, you should be quicker out to the 3-point line,” he said.

A quick explication: defenses that actively guard passing lanes can be more susceptible to defensive breakdowns than the pack-line schemes used not only by Winthrop, but also Wisconsin, Virginia, and Arizona, which is holding opponents to 28 percent shooting from beyond the arc. In more aggressive defenses, players that have to help must make two quick moves – away from their man to help a beaten defender, then back to their man – when a player successfully penetrates into the lane. In the pack-line, there is only one move to make – out to the shooter.

“If you look at the teams that execute our system, they’re some of the best defensive teams in the country,” said Kelsey. “It’s a system that’s proven itself to work; at the end of the day it’s the components executing the system, and it’s the adherence to the system, which is difficult.”

The Eagles lost an experienced pair of guards in Gideon Gamble and Reggie King, guys who were also physically bigger than the current crop. Winthrop’s starting backcourt of Andre Smith, at 6-foot, and 5-foot-7 leading scorer Keon Johnson, will be looking up at Downing, 6-foot-5, and Dillard, 6-foot-4. Bursting out of the pack-line and getting a hand in the shooter’s face will be crucial to offsetting the Blue Hose’s distinct height advantage on the perimeter, especially with Downing. He scored 37 against UNC Greensboro on 15 shots, but in Presbyterian’s 77-49 loss to Marshall last Saturday, he was held to 18 points on 7 of 20 shooting.

“We are smaller, and taller people don’t like people getting at their knees,” said Smith. “So just getting under them and pressuring them a little bit (will be key).”

Guarding the 3-point line will be central to the Eagles getting their first conference road win since Feb. 2, 2012, a streak of 12 fruitless trips. Winthrop was 0-8 on the road in Big South action last season, and 2-12 overall. Counting this season, the Eagles are 3-17 in road games under Kelsey.

Winning on the road is often about attitude, self-belief. Without the aid of a dunk-filled blowout Barber-Scotia might have provided, Smith said the team has to foster that personality in practice.

“The energy and the things we bring to practice are what’s important for the game,” he said before Tuesday’s two-hour session at Winthrop Coliseum. “Not having that game Saturday it kind of hurts us, but as long as we bring it in practice, we’ll be okay.”

Bret McCormick •  803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T

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