Cunningham, UNCA present big challenge for Winthrop men

bmccormick@heraldonline.comJanuary 21, 2014 

  • Big South Conference

    men’s basketball standings

    North Division

    TEAMCONFALL
    Radford3-113-6
    Campbell3-19-10
    VMI2-29-8
    Liberty2-28-11
    High Point2-26-11
    Longwood0-45-14

    South Division

    TEAMCONFALL
    Winthrop3-19-7
    UNC Asheville3-19-9
    Charleston Southern2-28-9
    Coastal Carolina 2-29-9
    Gardner-Webb2-29-10
    Presbyterian0-44-15

Winthrop’s post players will face the Big South Conference’s two best big men this week when the Eagles take on UNC Asheville on Wednesday and Virginia Military Institute on Saturday.

Winthrop interior players James Bourne, Larry Brown, Tevin Prescott and Jarad Scott will need to be at their best to help the Eagles offset D.J. Cunningham (UNCA) and D.J. Covington (VMI). Cunningham and the Bulldogs are first up.

“Told our guys, two words to describe them, they’re huge and they’re skilled,” Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said Tuesday after a two-hour practice. “Cunningham obviously, he’s one of the best shot-blockers in the United States. He’s a mountain around the basket.”

The Bulldogs (9-9, 3-1) host Winthrop (9-7, 3-1) Wednesday at Kimmel Arena, where they are 18-3 in two years of league play. On the heels of a 1-7 start, the Bulldogs have won eight of their last 10 games under first-year coach Nicholas McDevitt, who took the reins after longtime coach Eddie Biedenbach stepped down last summer. Part of the difficult start could be attributed to a nonconference slate that included losses to Kentucky, Duke, Rhode Island, East Carolina and Charlotte.

The Bulldogs got outrebounded in six of the first eight games of the season. When they’ve won the rebounding margin this season, they’re 7-2.

Cunningham, the rugged battler in the middle, is a big reason. He averages 10.5 points per game and a Big South-best 9.9 rebounds per game, while his 50 blocked shots also lead the league. The 6-foot-10 senior center is in the top-20 nationally in several advanced statistical categories, including blocked shot percentage, and offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, and he can finish around the basket with the left or right hand.

He’s also 11 rebounds removed from becoming just the second Big South player to grab 700 career rebounds and block 200 shots.

“He’s a big-time shot blocker, he protects the rim really well and he offensive rebounds very well,” said 6-foot-6 Winthrop junior Larry Brown, who has played against Cunningham several times.

While Winthrop has improved dramatically this season in the backcourt, especially in terms of shooting, the Eagles frontcourt is still a work in progress. Kelsey’s bunch doesn’t have the size or quality depth that conference championship contenders generally boast up front, and rebounding is one area where that’s surfaced. Bourne is the team’s leading glass-cleaner, and he’s only averaging 5.0 boards per contest.

“We’ve just got to put our hard hats on and get to work and really get at the backboards and offensive rebound,” said Brown, “because we’re gonna need it to make the (NCAA) tournament. Asheville’s the No. 1 offensive-rebounding team in the conference, so that could really help us tomorrow night.”

Bourne leads the group in scoring at 6.2 points per game, while Prescott is at 6.0, Brown 4.7 and Scott 2.6. Brown averages 3.8 rebounds per game, a statistic he needs and wants to bolster. He also averages 3.6 fouls per game, tops in the Big South. Foul trouble hasn’t been limited to Brown’s row of the stat sheet – all four of the Eagles big men have spent critical points of games on the bench this season.

“We’re dogmatic in our approach to how hard our guys play on the defensive end, and when you play that hard and aggressive, sometimes fouling is a byproduct,” Kelsey recalled. “But, coach (Skip) Prosser used to say that fouling negates hustle. We’ve got to anticipate better, and play with your feet and not your hands.”

Winthrop’s guards will need to take some of the guarding load off their bigger teammates on Wednesday. Not only do the Bulldogs have Cunningham and 7-foot Jaleel Roberts to employ in the paint, they’ve also got one of the top freshmen in the conference, guard Andrew Rowsey, who hit Charleston Southern for 35 points in a Bulldogs win last Saturday.

“Ball pressure is gonna play a very big part in this,” said Brown, who added that “Guarding the ball and keeping the guards in front of us and keeping them from having little dump-downs to them in case we have to step up and help,” would be key.

Kelsey and Brown both lauded Cunningham’s ability to see over double teams and make accurate passes to his shooters.

“That’s why they’re a very efficient team, because they have threats inside and out,” said Kelsey. “Their perimeter guys can really shoot the ball, and they’re skilled and they can put the ball on the floor. Extremely balanced team, and it’s a mistake and a losing recipe to focus all of your attention on just one guy.”

Winthrop has done a better job of defending in conference play, holding opponents to a league-best 65.8 points per game. Having a tougher outer defensive crust has put the Eagles in a situation to win their third straight conference road game for the first time since the 2009-10 season. They’ll have earned that distinction if they get a win in Asheville, N.C., on Wednesday.

“They’re a very, very good program, a tradition-rich program,” said Kelsey. “I know Nick (McDevitt), we kind of came up through the ranks of assistants together and spent time talking on the road. I told the Asheville paper last year ‘that’s a phenomenal hire.’ He helped build what they have there and it’s an extremely tradition-rich program.”

Despite losing their head coach and best two players – Keith Hornsby and Jeremy Atkinson – last offseason, the Bulldogs, and their towering big man in the middle, present a sizable challenge to continuing that streak.

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

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