Winthrop’s 3-point shooting has vaulted the school’s men’s basketball team to a winning record this season.
The Eagles will try not to rely on distance shooting alone this week during the Big South Conference tournament in Conway.
“We have an ability to put the ball in the basket better than we did last year,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey, “but in the tournament, you have one off-shooting night, it could be curtains.”
As much as Winthrop (17-12, 10-6) needs to hit some threes in its first round matchup Wednesday against Liberty at noon, the No. 4-seeded Eagles must drop their butts, get in a stance and defend the No. 5-seeded Flames (11-20, 5-11). Liberty turns the ball over on 20.7 percent of its possessions, 310th nationally (out of 351 teams), and the Flames are 338th in turnover percentage defensively, meaning they don’t force many. Their turnover margin is poor (321 forced to 414 suffered) and a huge detriment to their team.
Just ask Chris Lang, the beat reporter covering Liberty University men’s basketball for the Lynchburg News and Advance, who by this point in the season is probably sick of having to ask Flames coach Dale Layer about the team’s propensity to turn the ball over. Winthrop should be able to take advantage of Liberty’s profligate ball-handling; during conference play, the Eagles led the league in defensive turnover percentage, forcing turnovers in one out of every five of their opponents’ possessions.
“That’s part of our culture on the defensive end is playing with activity,” said Kelsey. “We don’t generate turnovers in the open court, we generate turnovers just by playing hard and trying to deflect the ball. If a by-product of playing with that activity is generating turnovers, we could really use them.”
The Eagles might not need a barrage of threes Wednesday against Liberty, if they can just defend like they’re capable. Layer’s club has won two of its last 10 games, against struggling Campbell and Longwood, and it’s difficult to remember they’re the same school that won the Big South’s NCAA bid this time last year. They lost one key contributor from that team and expectations were high for a group with no freshmen and just one sophomore. It hasn’t quite worked out.
The Flames’ saving grace this season has been their ability to drive the ball to the basket and their height across the front line. The latter has helped Liberty become one of the top offensive rebounding teams in the country, currently 11th best in NCAA in offensive rebounding percentage, a stat that has given them some extra possessions to offset the ones they give away.
“They’re very potent offensively and they have a lot of weapons and they’re big and they’re skilled,” said Kelsey. “A very tough first round draw because they’re the defending champions.”
According to the NCAA stats released Monday night, the Eagles are 12th best in 3-point shooting percentage, at 39.7 percent. It’s the school’s best percentage from beyond the arc since the 1989-90 season. Winthrop has four shooters hitting 37 percent or better and has made more over 60 more 3-pointers as than last season.
While Kelsey added two marksmen in the offseason in freshman Keon Johnson and transfer-eligible redshirt junior Keon Moore, it’s senior Joab Jerome’s improvement from beyond the arc that speaks to a tweak in philosophy from Kelsey. The second-year coach admitted he could get tied up in game-planning and defensive work and that sometimes last year, the Eagles didn’t shoot enough in practice. Winthrop women’s coach Kevin Cook encouraged Kelsey to get his team more reps, while a visit to a University of Miami (Fla.) practice during a recruiting trip inspired a 3-point shooting drill that the Eagles use on a daily basis now.
“Not that we didn’t shoot the ball in the past, but we’ve made that a point of emphasis,” said Kelsey, who has his guys go through Miami coach Jim Larranaga’s 5-minute threes, where they shoot as many as they can in that amount of time, almost every practice. Guys who make 50 in 5 minutes get a green light to shoot.
At the same time Kelsey was receiving his advice, Jerome finished a junior year in which defenders sagged off of him, knowing he couldn’t shoot from distance and would have to drive. Jerome and his teammates put up great volumes of shots during the offseason, and the improvement is clear. Jerome is shooting close to 50 percent from 3-range, and has hit 35 this season, more than he made his first three years in Rock Hill combined.
With Jerome often playing the four position (power forward), the Eagles usually have four good distance shooters on the floor at all times. While Liberty certainly presents its unique challenges, Winthrop does as well, something they hope they can do during a lengthy stay in Conway.
“We’re pretty hard to guard,” said Kelsey. “We’ve played a lot of small ball this year, and it’s been pretty darn effective.”
What’s one more week?
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T