The day prior to the start of the Big South tournament has been a busy one for Winthrop basketball coaches over the last 12 seasons.
Winthrop has won nine of the last 12 tournament titles and the team has traditionally drawn the ire of the rest of the conference.
This season, for the second time in three years, the Eagles find themselves in the bottom tier of the tournament seedings. As Monday morning's teleconference with the league's coaches unfolded, there were a lot of questions for Cliff Ellis at Coastal Carolina about winning a second straight regular season and the status of the NCAA investigation.
Questions poured in for No. 2-seeded Liberty coach Dale Layer, who was named the conference's Coach of the Year. No. 3 UNC Asheville's Eddie Biedenbach was quizzed on having two players named all-conference, and No. 4 VMI's Duggar Baucom fielded queries about how his team rallied to win its last five conference games to earn a first-round home contest tonight against Winthrop.
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Winthrop coach Randy Peele was lobbed a couple of softball questions and thanked for participating in the morning's events. No Eagles' players were award winners.
"I guess we are at a point where no one cares about us anymore," Peele told The Herald seconds after wrapping up the conference call.
Within 20 minutes Peele was on the court using the teleconference as motivation for his team.
"The tournament starts tomorrow!" he barked. "We have to get better."
The Eagles play VMI again at 7 tonight at Cameron Hall in Lexington, Va.
Winthrop (13-16) missed out on a chance to play at home in the first round after losing, 89-85, to VMI in Rock Hill on Saturday night. Keydets' senior guard Austin Kenon has scored 29 points against Winthrop in both games this season. He had eight of VMI's final 11 points to beat Winthrop on Saturday.
"We certainly have our hands full," Peele said. "Kenon has played tremendously well. He makes tough shots."
Kenon scored 39 in his last game at Cameron Hall.
The Eagles made some defensive adjustments Monday at the Winthrop Coliseum before leaving for VMI around 3 p.m. Winthrop will try to try to slow the pace of the tonight's game and negate Kenon as much as possible.
"On Saturday, VMI drove the ball on us at will," Peele said. "We have to be more consistent in our ability to guard the ball and rebound."
Offensively, Winthrop junior guard Andre Jones has averaged 20 points and eight rebounds against VMI this season. Redshirt junior forward Matt Morgan has enjoyed some success against the Keydets as well. He is at 15 points and 8.2 rebounds in four career games. Junior point guard Reggie Middleton had a career-best nine assists Saturday and has dished out 17 helpers in the two meetings with VMI this season.
VMI's last conference loss was at Coastal Carolina on Feb. 5. The Keydets fell to 5-8. Baucom said the key to his team's turnaround was a heart-to-heart talk in the locker room after that game.
"I don't think anyone expected us to win five games and end up hosting in the first round," VMI's Baucom said.
He said preparing for tonight's game, just three days after facing Winthrop, is like an NBA playoff game.
"We're trying to get our minds right. We are at home. It is a new set of circumstances," Baucom said. "We'll just refine some things and just try to be focused."
VMI had two players earn awards on Monday. Kenon was named First-Team All-Conference. Center D.J. Covington took Freshman of the Year honors.
"Covington is from my hometown in Norfolk, Va.," Peele said. "Every shot he makes against us is like a bullet in my chest."
Covington earned his third straight week Big South Freshman of the Week award on Sunday after averaging 13.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in two Keydets' wins. He posted his second career double-double with 17 points and a career-high 13 rebounds in VMI's win Saturday at Winthrop.
VMI (17-12) has played for two of the last four Big South Tournament championships. In 2007 they lost a thrilling 84-81 game at Winthrop. In 2009, they dropped a 108-94 game at Radford.
Only Winthrop can match VMI's rate of championship game appearances in the last four seasons.