The Winthrop men's basketball team is almost six months removed from a disastrous shooting night in Dayton, Ohio, in the NCAA tournament play-in game where the Eagles shot 29 percent and made only 2-of-21 3-point attempts in a disappointing 61-44 loss to Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
For the year, the team made good on 38 percent of its shots from the field and 24.8 percent from 3-point range, numbers a lot lower than Winthrop fans have grown accustomed.
Coach Randy Peele, who is entering his fourth year, wants to see both numbers improve this season. The team is 12 practices into the 2010-2011 season and while defense will remain a major focus, the coach is adding plenty of shooting drills so far.
One drill has the players running the length of the floor to the free throw line where they receive a pass. The goal is to make 100 shots within a three-minute span. The first attempt netted 88 makes. The second time they made 94.
The early results are promising, but there is still work to be done.
Andre Jones has been shooting the lights out. Matt Morgan looks silky smooth out to the 3-point line. Both players are juniors with an opportunity to lead this team out of the gates.
Jones is the odds-on favorite to start at shooting guard, at least for the first four games, while sophomore Robbie Dreher serves a four-game suspension.
Jones stayed in Rock Hill over the summer to put up shots. The extra work is paying off in practice. On Friday, Peele put Jones on the floor along with Moore, junior point guard Reggie Middleton and senior Charles Corbin. The four took on a mix of four defenders and chewed them up.
Jones hit a 3 from the wing. Corbin finished off a spin move inside and on the next possession drifted out to the wing to drop in a 3. Jones received a Middleton pass in the corner and drained a 17-footer.
Morgan will be a go-to player especially through the Jacksonville game on Dec. 12. Corbin will return from his suspension at that point. Until then, Morgan will be the Eagles only real scoring threat among the big men.
George Valentine, a 6-foot-9 junior forward, is back from a broken hand while 6-11 redshirt freshman Julius Francis has improved his offensive skills. Both players focus on defense first.
Morgan needs to get more touches this season. From February until the end of the 2009-2010 season, the Eagles went 6-1 in games where he put up 10 or more shots while going 2-3 when he shot fewer than 10.
Morgan scored in double figures in nine of the last 12 games last year. The 23-year-old transfer from St. Bonaventure should be ready for a breakout season.
Jones started 23 games as a freshman and had a couple 20-point games and averaged 9.1 points per game that season. He slumped last year to 5.9 ppg.
He'll have to get off to a quicker start this season and carry that confidence into March.
A year ago he began the season by missing 11 of his first 12 3-pointers. Thirteen games into the schedule, he became the seventh or eighth player off the bench.
Friday's workout also saw Peele letting the offense get out and run, although he wasn't satisfied with the effort.
"You guys say you want to run but I'm seeing guys jogging back," Peele said, his voice already crackling in mid-season form. "Do you really think you can play in games at that speed?"
To no one's surprise, practices have stressed hard-nosed defense, too.
"Who is going to be our defensive stopper?" Peele asked, putting a halt to one drill. "I don't know who it is. I'm looking for him."
Soon afterward Middleton played some lockdown defense on reserve guard Reggie King in a 1-on-1 drill. Peele was encouraged. Later, redshirt sophomore Gideon Gamble was beaten off the dribble. Clearly there is work to be done.
Winthrop's biggest loss from last year is forward Mantoris Robinson who was a two-time Big South Defensive Player of the Year.
A player that might begin to fill Robinson's shoes this year is freshman Joey Jerome.
Jerome, a 6-5 wing player, is a solid defender. He will be out for a few more days until he receives medical clearance to return to basketball after suffering a concussion last weekend in practice.
Some early impressions from practices include:
Francis has a sweet hook shot out to 10 feet, straightaway.
Freshman forward Derrick Scott does have a good looking shot but he seems lost on the floor at times.
Francis and Scott need lots of work learning Peele's system.
Peele will continue to demand defensive pressure from his team in practices. In fact he issued a challenge to hold Winthrop's opponents to 55 points or less in every game this season.
King injured an ankle over the summer in a non-basketball related incident. As a result he returned to school a little behind in his conditioning.
James Bourne, a 2011 Winthrop commitment, made his official visit this weekend.
The season-opener is now less than three weeks away. Winthrop hosts Queens on Nov. 13.
The Eagles were picked to finish second in the Big South Conference. The league's preseason poll of head coaches and a media panel was released on Oct. 12.