Winthrop has struggled at times playing at Coastal Carolina's Kimbel Arena, and tonight's game should be as hotly contested as any.
The talk this week has centered more on Coastal forward Mike Holmes, who was suspended indefinitely on Sunday by coach Cliff Ellis. The suspension was handed down for a violation of team rules.
The volatile 6-foot-8 senior was dismissed from South Carolina's basketball team early last season. The State newspaper reported that Holmes was involved in a physical altercation with a teammate in the week before his dismissal by USC.
Curiously, Coastal guard Desmond Holloway appeared to have a bruised eye as he left Kimbel Arena after practice on Monday, according to The Sun News newspaper. Ellis was asked by The Sun News if Holloway's blackened eye had any connection to Holmes' suspension. The answer: "No comment."
Holmes sat out the first semester at Coastal and debuted Dec. 13. The Chants went 7-0 with Holmes in the lineup. He scored 11 points and had seven rebounds in Ellis' 600th career win at Liberty on Saturday.
This is the first bit of adversity Coastal Carolina (14-2, 5-0 Big South) has faced this season. Winthrop gets the first look at this new-look team.
Ellis gave another former South Carolina player, Chad Gray, a second chance and that has worked out well. Gray, a 6-7 senior, is averaging 12.4 points and 5.8 rebounds this season. He scored 22 points in the Chants' 78-69 overtime win at LSU on Dec. 13.
Whether Holmes returns this season is anyone's guess right now.
Winthrop coach Randy Peele said Wednesday he didn't feel he had any choice but to prepare for tonight's game as if Holmes will play. To him, Holmes or no Holmes, it doesn't matter.
"This game is about Winthrop. I'll prepare for everyone on Coastal's roster," Peele said. "The opponent is not Coastal Carolina. The opponent is yourself and the game itself. I'm really concerned about us playing better, that's my focal point. We're going there to win the game. We have our own problems to worry about."
Peele rattled off some of the Eagles' problems, starting with giving up too many second chance points. Belmont, Liberty and Dayton all beat Winthrop, in part, by getting 21, 19 and 18 second chance points, respectively.
Next up was guarding the ball. Peele, and the Winthrop faithful, were disappointed with the way the Eagles allowed UNC Asheville's J.P. Primm and Matt Dickey to launch shot after shot. The Bulldogs pounded Winthrop, 88-67, on Jan. 6.
Peele is also looking for his team to develop more of an inside presence. George Valentine was that guy early in the year. He was scoring 9 points and getting 8.9 rebounds through the first seven games. In Valentine's last seven games, he has tailed off to 6 points and 5.1 boards per contest. Peele was hoping for 12 and 8 from Valentine this season.
And then there is Reggie Middleton, the Eagles' junior point guard who has almost disappeared in the last three games. He has just 11 points (3.7 ppg) in his last three outings. He is picking up cheap fouls that have limited his minutes. He has dished out only three assists while committing seven turnovers in less than 20 minutes over the last three games. His scoring average has dipped below 10 ppg for the first time all season.
"Up to this point, Reggie can play better than he's playing," Peele said. "Last year there were times he was unguardable."
Middleton's regular season history at Kimbel Arena isn't good. In two games he has missed 19-of-20 shots from the floor and he is 0-for-6 on 3-point attempts.
Coastal has won three of the last four games against Winthrop at Kimbel. Of course, the Eagles' won the game that counted most, the 2010 Big South Conference Tournament final on March 6.
Winthrop stung CCU with a 64-53 win to move on to the NCAA tournament. The Chants took an NIT bid and lost at Alabama-Birmingham 65-49.
The Chanticleers will be motivated by that loss. Now they say they are moving on without Holmes.
"We're focusing on Winthrop, which is, as we know, the biggest game really on our schedule as of yet," Coastal Carolina guard Danny Nieman told The Sun News.
Peele stayed even-keeled in practice on Wednesday. He's keeping his mind on the big prize.
"This game is big because it's our next game," he said. "It isn't any bigger than Saturday's game at Charleston Southern. The only big game is the championship game."