First order of business for Winthrop men: beat Presbyterian

bmccormick@heraldonline.comFebruary 28, 2014 

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    What needs to happen for Winthrop to secure a first round bye in the Big South Conference tournament:

    - Coastal Carolina needs to lose to Charleston Southern; Winthrop beat the Chanticleers twice and will have the tiebreaker over Cliff Ellis’ team if both teams end up in second place.

    - Gardner-Webb needs to beat UNC Asheville; Gardner-Webb swept the Eagles, but can do them a favor by beating Asheville and dropping them a game behind the pack.

    - Winthrop needs to beat Presbyterian; all of the above permutations are pointless if the Eagles don’t handle business at home against the league’s worst team.

Winthrop’s James Bourne is almost always in Jeff Lahr’s training room 45 minutes before the Eagles’ men’s basketball practices. The 6-foot-9 junior usually sits in a cold whirlpool for at least 30 minutes after practices conclude. Bourne absolutely would love for his team to have a first round bye in the Big South Conference tournament next week.

“As a team overall, especially the people that play more, like Joey Jerome, I think it would be good for them,” he said before Friday’s practice. “You want that time to keep fresh. As a whole, as a collective group, we all want that bye.”

Bourne isn’t the only one feeling much older than his 22 years at the moment. Jerome, a senior, said he’s hanging out with Lahr “more than I ever have in the past,” usually showing up in the training room at least two hours before practice and never leaving afteward without dry ice packs to take home for his weary legs.

“If we got this bye, it’d be huge,” said Jerome, “but if we don’t, we’ll be fine.”

Winthrop (16-12, 9-6 in Big South) isn’t beset by the kinds of serious injuries that have hampered plenty of NCAA teams this season, but they do have the accumulated knocks, niggles and strains that no college basketball team is immune from by March. After Wednesday night’s overtime win over UNC Asheville, head coach Pat Kelsey limited the Eagles’ practice to just 30 minutes on Thursday. Bourne, who left Wednesday’s game late with cramps in both his calves, and the other veteran players appreciated the day of recuperation.

“He’s very conscientious of keeping his players fresh,” said Bourne. “After a long game the night before that went into overtime - it was a pretty up and down game - it was good to get in here and not go as hard.”

There’s still a lot that can be accomplished without a full tilt two hours. The Eagles reviewed film and sharpened themselves mentally for Presbyterian, and there was plenty of treatment and regeneration therapy. As Kelsey said, “I think we had a productive day; we just didn’t beat the heck out of each other.”

The Eagles went hard on Friday though, leaving nothing to chance for Saturday’s regular season finale. On paper or a computer screen, the Presbyterian (6-24, 2-13) is one of the worst teams in NCAA. But Gregg Nibert’s squad is dangerous enough to stomp any chance Winthrop has of getting an extra day off next week. With that in mind, Friday’s practice was full throttle.

Trailing UNC Asheville by 11 points with 1 minute, 24 seconds left on Wednesday, Winthrop had a 0.6 percent chance of winning the game, according to KenPom.com, an advanced statistics web site that tracks such sundry minutiae. Saturday against Presbyterian, the Eagles have been given a 93 percent chance of victory. Presbyterian has upset the odds this season though, beating Asheville 72-71 on Feb. 15. In Jordan Downing. Markus Terry and Reggie Dillard, the Blue Hose have a tall and sharp-shooting backcourt, and a load of a big man in the paint in William Truss.

“Offensively, they’re a team that really scares you on tape,” said Kelsey. “Our mentality always, is every single game we prepare for like the Super Bowl.”

As Winthrop players warm up for practice in these late weeks of the season, the spearminty scent of Octogen, an emollient used by much of the team to soothe aching muscles, begins to fill the Coliseum. During a fullcourt drill, freshman Josh Davenport took the full brunt of a charge from 6-foot-8, 230-pound redshirt freshman Duby Okeke on his chin, while a gaggle of Eagles tumbled over each other for a loose ball on another possession, clattering to the floor in a tangled pile. Those kinds of collisions aren’t abnormal, and a day off every now and then is sometimes the only way to limit them.

After 123 practice sessions and 28 games, every part of the college basketball body is creakier than it was in October. An extra day off in the conference tournament could make a huge difference for Winthrop, or Gardner-Webb, Coastal Carolina or UNC Asheville, the other three teams scrapping for a free pass to the second round in Conway. Beating Presbyterian is the entry point to that possibility.

“Everything else is out of our control,” said Kelsey. “We’re gonna need some help from some other people, but nothing else matters if we don’t take care of business on Saturday, so our sole focus is simply on that.”

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

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