On the eve of what was at the time arguably Winthrop’s biggest men’s basketball game of the season, last Wednesday against Coastal Carolina, Eagles coach Pat Kelsey was down in sunny Miami.
His assistant coaches - Mark Prosser, Brian Thornton and Marty McGillian - were running practice back in Rock Hill on Tuesday, preparing Winthrop for what the rival Chanticleers would throw their way the following day. Kelsey wasn’t partying at South Beach; he was watching Eagle commit Joseph Lopez haul down a double-double to help his South Miami High School team into the state tournament’s regional finals. It was the only time Kelsey had been down to see him all season.
“You’re hesitant because you don’t want to leave your team,” Kelsey said Tuesday after practice. “But I can get on that airplane knowing that my staff is going to take full control of practice and have us unbelievably prepared, as they did for the Coastal game.”
It didn’t take guts for Kelsey to make the trip last Wednesday. It took trust. And Winthrop’s second-year coach has that in abundance when it comes to handing over the reigns to his assistants.
“They’re all phenomenal coaches and they’re all going to be head coaches,” said Kelsey. “They all bring different things to the table and all have different strengths, but with each one of them I trust them with my basketball life.”
The pre-Coastal practice hardly hiccuped. Aside from a few reminders that Kelsey would be watching film of the practice when he returned to Rock Hill Wednesday morning, the two-hour session proceeded as it normally would. All of the assistants took turns chiming in, pausing practice to point out a finer detail or provide instruction. The result on Wednesday - Winthrop pulled away for a 75-65 win over the Chanticleers clinching a season sweep - only solidified Kelsey’s feeling.
“There is a culture that coach has put in place the last couple of years,” said Prosser, who was the head coach for a year at Division II Brevard College before joining Kelsey at Winthrop. “There’s gonna be times when he has to go recruiting and has other responsibilities and it’s up to us to lead when he’s not there. It’s a testament to the culture that is in place, and certainly to our guys that their attention level stays high. I don’t know that it’s anything we did, just kind of the expectation level for whoever is out there with the whistle.”
Kelsey said some staffs have coaches that don’t truly get along but that he doesn’t have that problem with Prosser, Thornton and McGillian.
“It’s cool to see the trust and camaraderie they have for each other,” said Kelsey. “Nobody’s trying to one-up somebody else. It’s all about us developing our guys and us winning games.”
The support group’s unseen work is almost non-stop. Kelsey’s laptop is returned almost immediately after a Winthrop game ends, loaded with that game’s possessions ready for consumption. The team’s student managers and video coordinator Michael Shelton work during and directly after the game to separate each possession so that the game video is easily sorted and viewed.
After a game, Kelsey also is handed a dossier on the next opponent from whichever assistant coach has the scout; Prosser scouted Coastal Carolina last week, while Thornton was giving the scouting report on UNC-Asheville during Tuesday’s practice. The file includes offensive and defensive summaries, KenPom.com numbers, of which Kelsey is a hardcore devotee, and the opponent’s last five box-scores. Opposition scouting assignments are divvied up by the staff before the season begins. Each assistant scouts the same teams if they’re played twice, and assistants can draw consecutive scouts during the conference tournament.
The key to staying on top of the workload is managing time and using technology to lessen the amount of effort needed to thoroughly break down an opposing team. That can get especially tricky with families at home that deserve attention.
“You have to sneak a couple of minutes every now and then,” said Prosser, who admits that most coaches have some making up to do with their loved ones after the season. “Early in the morning is a time you can kind of sneak some hours when you have young kids. We do a nice job of trying to find some pockets. We all have to find that time to balance out.”
Winthrop men’s basketball uses XOS Digital to manipulate game film. The computer program allows each coach to sort every possession in the game. The possessions for the opponent’s last five games are tagged and can be sorted by what action the opposition used on offense, or what defensive scheme they used when guarding the ball. Coaches viewing the film can attach comments to video clips, which are visible to all. Every practice and every game since Kelsey arrived is stored on a hard drive that boasts terabytes of memory. Everything is organized and accessible. It beats the heck out of manually rewinding video tapes.
“Now everything is so much more streamlined,” said Prosser. “A lot of that busy work that we used to have to do in scouting is done for us. And it helps because you can take that stuff home and spend a little more time at home. You’re not spending that much time in dark rooms pausing VHS.”
The behind the scenes hustling doesn’t end there. McGillian is often seen organizing small groups in drills before practice; it’s his strength, individual skill development, and one of the reasons Kelsey brought him back after McGillian was an assistant to former Winthrop coach Randy Peele for several seasons.
“He just eats and sleeps and loves skill development. I think if you pull his face off there’s wires behind it. He’s like a robot; nobody’s ever seen him eat,” Kelsey joked. “He’s a hard worker.”
Direction of operations Tony Rack spends his time sorting logistics, planning practice times at Winthrop Coliseum with women’s basketball and volleyball directors, while also plotting all of the team’s travel. Rack has to find the easiest method of transportation, but also the cheapest. He also works with teachers to keep the players up on school work, and maintains spreadsheets in DropBox that chart Winthrop’s recruiting trips, which are limited by NCAA rules.
Together, the whole group keeps the program, more akin to a small business, moving forward, improving, and - the eternal hope - winning. There could be no letdown while Kelsey was in Miami, and there wasn’t. The players, taking their cues from the top, treated the practice no differently from any other. The result showed.
“Sometimes you have that substitute teacher mentality,” said Kelsey. “You start putting whoopie cushions on the teacher’s chair, but there is a respect that our players have for those guys. They know that they’re head coaches in the making and they trust and respect their basketball knowledge and their presence on the floor.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T