NBA Jam was a popular video game in the mid-1990s, pitting every NBA team’s three-best players against each other.
With a trio of talented guards on each side, Wednesday night’s Winthrop-Coastal Carolina men’s basketball game in Rock Hill might look a little like a real life NBA Jam revisit. Guards run every level of college hoops and they’ll likely determine the outcome of Winthrop’s Wednesday night home game against rival Coastal Carolina.
The Chanticleers (16-10, 9-3 Big South) have won seven of their last eight games to zip into first place and establish a two-game lead in the otherwise jumbled South Division. Winthrop (14-11, 7-5) lost Saturday to Charleston Southern by 20 points, snuffing out a four-game win streak and joining Gardner-Webb and UNC-Asheville in a three-way tie behind first place Coastal.
Cliff Ellis’ Coastal program had a serious remodeling project on its hands this past offseason after graduating the All-Big South backcourt duo Anthony Raffa and Kierre Greenwood. But Ellis was able to fold in junior college transfer Josh Cameron (14.3 points per game, 43 percent 3-point shooting) and freshman Elijah Wilson (16.2 points, 3.8 rebounds per game) to immediately fill the void that Raffa and Greenwood left in their wake. The newcomers teamed with returning junior Warren Gillis (13.6 points, 3 assists per game) to give the Chanticleers a 1-2-3 series of jabs in the backcourt.
“They’ve done a great job,” Ellis said about Wilson and Cameron. “I think that’s been a key to our success because we lost such a veteran backcourt, but our frontcourt is a year older and the new guys have just meshed in and done extremely well.”
Winthrop has fought its way back into division championship contender-shape this season with a similar recipe. Point guard Brandon Vega returned from an injury redshirt and Keon Moore became eligible after sitting out per transfer rules. Freshman Keon Johnson, like Coastal’s Wilson, has provided an immediate offensive contribution as a rookie, and combined with Moore and junior Andre Smith to give the Eagles a trio of sharpshooters in the starting five. Johnson, Moore and Smith are shooting a combined 40 percent from 3-point range.
“This is a different Winthrop team from the past,” said Ellis. “This is the best 3-point shooting team I’ve seen Winthrop have in the seven years that I’ve been here.”
He wasn’t kidding. The Eagles have hit double digit 3-pointers in nine games this season, a big jump from the seven games combined over the previous six seasons. Winthrop gets a third of its offensive production from beyond the 3-point line, 33rd-most nationally. Notable teams ahead of the Eagles in that category include Campbell (7th) and Charleston Southern (8th), and Duke (20th) and Creighton (3rd) nationally. The Eagles are a team reliant on 3-point shooting this season, chiefly from the aforementioned trio.
The two teams’ first meeting bears out the NBA Jam theory. In Winthrop’s 73-72 overtime victory over Coastal back in January, Wilson, Cameron and Gillis shot 32 of the Chanticleers’ 39 2-point field goal attempts and 16 of the team’s 20 shots from the 3-point arc. They also scored 53 of Coastal’s 72 points. The Eagles’ backcourt trio carried a similarly heavy load; Moore, Smith and Johnson scored 57 of Winthrop’s 73 points, and knocked in 11 of the team’s 12 3-pointers.
“We were sort of gun-slinging it, going back and forth,” Moore said of the opposing backcourts. “But in the last 2 minutes of the game our defensive principles held true when we needed it, and we got big shots when we needed it.”
The emergence of both team’s guards has been a bit of a surprise around the league, and even in their own ranks.
“It’s happened a bit quicker than I thought to be honest,” said Ellis, referring to his new players’ integration. “We’re so inexperienced, so you just don’t know what to expect when you don’t have guys that have been there. So, it’s been a pleasant surprise I would say.”
Obviously the Wednesday game won’t be an NBA Jam session, as many more factors, including Coastal Carolina’s rabid offensive rebounding and Winthrop’s knack for forcing turnovers, will have a say. There are 10 players on the floor too. Keep in mind that Winthrop’s winning bucket in overtime on Jan. 18 against Coastal came from center James Bourne. It was his only basket of the game.
There’s also the unusual lack of home court advantage that has impacted a parity-ridden Big South this season. The league’s combined record for home teams in conference play is 38-34, the second lowest winning percentage in the country. Wins on the home deck are not a given in the Big South this year, illustrated by Winthrop’s road win over its rival last month. It’s also worth noting that Coastal has the Big South’s only winning record (6-5) on the road this season.
“I’ve never seen a year where there has not been a home court advantage like this year,” Ellis said. “It’s very strange.”
Even with those factors laid out, it still feels like stopping Coastal’s backcourt threesome is the glaring imperative to beating the Chanticleers, the cheat code to their NBA Jam if you will. In games when Cameron, Wilson and Gillis all scored in double figures this season, Coastal is 15-3, including 9-1 in the Big South; Winthrop handed the Chanticleers their only loss in that subset. When just two of the three guards have reached the double digit scoring threshold, the Chanticleers are 0-5, and when just one of them hits 10 or more points, they are 1-2, with the lone victory coming against Division III Guilford College.
“We know they’re a team to be reckoned with,” said Moore. “We’re gonna have to put on our big boy pants and get it done.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T