Biggest challenge yet for Winthrop freshman

bmccormick@heraldonline.comJanuary 10, 2014 

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When Keon Johnson stoops down and readies himself for Winthrop’s first defensive possession in Saturday’s men’s basketball game against Charleston Southern, he’ll see a guy coming at him that’s very similar looking.

Johnson, a 5-foot-5 freshman who is generously listed on the team’s roster as 5-foot-7, will have one of his toughest defensive challenges of the season against Charleston Southern point guard Saah Nimley, who’s listed at 5-foot-8, also probably generous. The pair are offensive dynamos – each leading his team in scoring – but defense has proven to be more difficult in a game where height is a precious commodity.

“Guys that lack a little bit in inches, they’ve got to make up for in heart,” said Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radebaugh. “Keon plays much like Saah, with tremendous heart.”

The two point guards will be a side-story in a mouth-watering Big South matchup that tips at 2 p.m. Charleston Southern (7-7, 1-0) hasn’t beaten Winthrop (7-6, 1-0) in Rock Hill since 2002, a stretch of 12 games. The Eagles’ 70-65 home win over the Bucs last season was an example of how things can go very wrong for Radebaugh’s team. They hit just 3 of 27 shots from beyond the arc, an indication of how heavily the program leans on the 3-pointer.

“We basically don’t recruit people that can’t shoot,” said the Charleston Southern coach Friday afternoon as his team traveled up to Rock Hill. “It’s kind of become our niche.”

This season is no different, a story told by the team’s scoring distribution. The Bucs are second nationally in the percentage of their points (43.1) that come from beyond the 3-point line and second to last in percentage of 2-point scoring (35.6).

That disparity hasn’t stopped them from scoring yet. Charleston Southern is the fourth highest scoring team in NCAA Division I, averaging 87.7 points per outing (grain of salt warning: The Bucs have battered four non-Division I schools, scoring over 100 points in each game. With those games removed, their scoring drops to 76.5 points per.), and the Bucs lead the nation in made 3-pointers per game, 11.6. They’re also 11th in team 3-point shooting percentage, at 41.5 percent.

All of that offensive production starts with the smallest Buc, Nimley. He’s a threat to shoot, but, averaging 5.5 assists per game, the 2012-13 All-Big South first-teamer really likes to infiltrate the lane and dish to open teammates.

“Saah’s perfect for us with his ability to penetrate and pitch, and his willingness also,” said Radebaugh. “He’s a willing passer; there is no hesitancy. He’s one of the most unselfish players we’ve ever had.”

Nimley’s targets are numerous, and there will be situations Saturday where Radebaugh’s team has four or five capable long distance shooters on the court simultaneously. That puts the pressure firmly on Winthrop’s perimeter defense, which starts with Johnson, the point guard. The Eagles are allowing opponents to shoot 38 percent from the 3-point line and while Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey didn’t heap the fault on Johnson, he does expect improvement from his rookie point guard.

“In college basketball everybody is very good,” said Kelsey. “Coaches spend an inordinate amount of time breaking down tape and watching, they can exploit breakdowns in defenses. What I think freshmen have to adjust to, is you can’t take a second off. You can’t relax mentally.”

Kelsey is more concerned with his freshman’s lack of volume, not his lack of size.

“He’s a quiet kid by nature, but that’s just how he’s wired,” said Kelsey. “I told him I’m going to be relentless in getting him to emote and talk and communicate.”

That’s coming from the guy who begins every practice by striding around the gym shouting “I hate a quiet gym!” like a kid who’s Ritalin just kicked into gear. Johnson is aware of the critique.

“Being a leader is tough, as far as talking, helping people,” he said. “You have to be able to communicate through the pack-line for it to work.”

Effusiveness is a trait Johnson is trying to develop. It certainly helps that he’s got talented, veteran guards to also man the point in junior Andre Smith, the team’s third leading scorer, and redshirt junior Brandon Vega, the team’s leader in assists. Both are willing talkers on and off the hardwood, and Johnson can soak up their on-court personas.

“They’re veterans, so they’re a true help as far as me being a point guard,” said Johnson. “I learn stuff from Vega, from his game, I learn stuff from ’Dre (Smith), from his game.”

Making an immediate impact at the college level has also eased the Mansfield, Ohio, native’s transition to college life. Johnson is shooting 46 percent from the 3-point line and 87 percent from the foul line, while averaging 13.3 points per game and scoring double figures in nine of 13 contests.

“I knew he could really score the ball,” said Kelsey. “When a kid’s small like that but has elite range like Keon has, it sort of negates that size disadvantage. I really think he’s wired to score.”

Radebaugh was very complimentary of a player he watched extensively on the recruiting circuit.

“Keon is obviously a special player,” he said. “He’s just one of those guys, much like Saah Nimley, that plays with a chip on his shoulder and is a terrific competitor. If Keon wasn’t the competitor that he was, he wouldn’t be playing Division I basketball.”

Being short is something Johnson has had plenty of time to get used to. Same with doubters of his physical attributes.

“It happens all the time,” said Johnson. “My game speaks for it all, but I really don’t care about my height. They’ll see eventually.”

If anyone could relate, it’s Nimley. Lightly recruited out of high school, the diminutive whiz from Lawrenceville, Ga., has been an impact player for Charleston Southern from Day One, en route to becoming one of the conference’s best players.

“For as little as he is, he actually does a good job scoring at the rim,” said Kelsey, “and Keon is a lot like that at 5-5. Keon can get in there and take contact and finish too.”

Johnson’s offensive abilities aren’t the concern.

“It’s all the other aspects of the game, understanding reads, our system offensively, understanding concepts on the defensive end, coaching a team up through adversity, because,” said Kelsey.

“I’m the guy on the sideline with the suit. The guys out there in the trenches have got to figure stuff out on the fly. If a point guard can grab the bull by the horns and fix things in the heat of the battle then that’s special, and he’s getting there.”

That might require the odd shout, something Johnson isn’t yet innately prone to doing. Is he too quiet?

“The coaches think I am,” Johnson said with a grin. “That’s one thing I need to work on, especially as the point guard. It’ll come.”

And with that, he hopped up from his seat and joined his teammates on the Winthrop Coliseum floor. With practice beginning, the volume in the cavernous gym began to rise steadily.

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

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