Friday’s Big South Conference tournament matchup between High Point and Winthrop is the first postseason meeting between the two schools under head coaches Scott Cherry and Pat Kelsey. It likely won’t be the last.
The two programs are headed in similarly positive directions under the stewardship of Cherry and Kelsey, rising stars in the coaching business.
Cherry is in his fifth year at High Point, a program with no consistent tradition of winning. It took him three losing seasons to accrue a head of steam but he has the Panthers on the path toward the NCAA tournament bid that has eluded the school in its 15 years of Division I basketball.
Kelsey has led Winthrop to its first winning season in three years and is working to return his program to the Big Dance, where it made a home in the 2000s as every wannabe college basketball expert’s annual first-round upset pick.
“He’s been associated with tremendous coaches at different places,” said Cherry. “I’ve been very fortunate to play for a tremendous high school coach, an unbelievable college coach, one of the best of all time, and the coaches I’ve been associated with in my coaching career, guys who do it the right way. So, I think we’re two very similar young guys trying to make it in the profession.”
If the two teams’ first scrap this season is any indicator, Friday’s game should go down to the last seconds. High Point beat Winthrop 65-64 on Feb. 1, in a game the Eagles led for 39 minutes and 52 seconds, before Adam Weary’s late shot proved the difference for the Panthers. High Point (16-13, No. 1 seed North) won 10 of its final 11 regular season games after a 4-11 start; Winthrop (18-12, No. 4 seed South) has won eight of its last 10, including Wednesday’s Big South Conference tournament first-round matchup with Liberty.
For both coaches, the relative success so far this season is nothing new.
Cherry played for Dean Smith’s 1993 national championship team at the University of North Carolina that beat a vaunted Michigan Fab Five in the final, and he also coached on the George Mason University staff, under Jim Larranaga, that reached the Final Four in 2006.
Kelsey played and coached at Xavier, which has made the Big Dance 23 times, and was an assistant at Wake Forest, which has made 22 trips to the tournament; Winthrop has made it nine times, all in the last 15 years. That’s a legacy that informs Kelsey’s expectation of success, one that literally hangs over him and his players.
“You walk into the Dean Dome, or (Xavier’s) Cintas Center, or you walk into Winthrop Coliseum, all of those places are places where a lot of banners hang over the floor that speak of the tradition of those places,” said Kelsey.
The expectation for both coaches was developed early. As a senior at Cincinnati’s Elder High School, Kelsey led the Panthers to the 1993 state championship, and Joe Schoenfeld, who coached that team and knows Kelsey’s family well, thinks winning came naturally for his former starting point guard.
“There is definitely a winning gene in that Kelsey clan,” said Schoenfeld. “A lot of that was just born into him, and the way he was raised, the way his parents are. Expecting the best out of yourself and the people around you, he walked in to high school with that mentality. I think it sort of rubbed off on the guys he was in contact with, much like it’s rubbing off on his players now.”
Cherry’s Saratoga Catholic (N.Y.) team went 25-1 during his senior prep year in 1989, winning a regional title. Saratoga Catholic coach Bob King, who won 72 percent of his games during an 18-year career at the school, remembers Cherry’s competitive nature standing out.
“He was really like having another coach on the floor, probably better than the one he was playing for,” joked King. “He was a very unusual guy at that age – very mature.”
Modern science says the male brain doesn’t stop maturing until about 25 years of age. That puts college basketball players within the age of still being malleable and receptive to learning winning practices. Pedigree and experience make it easier for Cherry and Kelsey to share their messages.
“I think these kids immediately respect what we’re saying and how we’re saying it,” said Cherry. “We also go out and look for kids that have had success in their careers.”
Some college guys already know how to win; they just need to be recruited. High Point redshirt sophomore John Brown has been a transcendent recruit for the Panthers. Earlier this week he was named the Big South Conference’s Player of the Year, after already becoming the first sophomore in league history to score more than 1,000 points. He won Florida’s 1A Player of the Year award as a high school senior at Arlington Country Day, while leading his team to the state final. Brown didn’t need to be taught how to win.
Winthrop senior Joab Jerome didn’t need to be taught how to win either. His Wheeler High School program in Marietta, Ga., won four state titles from 2002 to 2009 under head coach Doug Lipscomb. On March 8, this year’s version of the Wildcats will again play for a state title. The expectation for him and Kelsey is for Winthrop to be doing the same.
“There’s a lot of high-level coaches and players that have put on a Winthrop uniform that have built a standard and created something that is truly special,” said Kelsey. “It’s our job to uphold that with how we play. It’s an approach, it’s a culture.”
When players and coaches have the same visceral lust for winning, everything is easier. That’s the foundation that annually strong basketball programs at any level are built upon, the expectation of success. For Winthrop, a program that has felt that success, and High Point, a program seeking it, the expectation is there. The only question is when will the banners follow?
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T