Winthrop might have a new basketball coach in Randy Peele, but the Eagles aren't backing away from playing another demanding schedule in 2007-08.
It might be the most difficult overall schedule the program has faced, and certainly includes a 14-game home schedule that is the most difficult since Winthrop became the flagship team in the Big South Conference nine years ago.
The Eagles will face a minimum of nine teams that won 20 or more games last season, including five that reached postseason play. They'll also host the ESPN BracketBuster game in February that's likely to include another stiff challenge and play in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands that features a strong eight-team field.
"It's a great schedule," said Peele, who took over for Gregg Marshall in April and put together the 28-game slate. "There are a lot of people who will tell you it is an extremely tough schedule considering the fact we lost three very good players.
"I'm ecstatic because we have 14 home games and our goal is that all 14 will be sellouts. I want to challenge our fans. With the quality of non-conference opponents that will come into the coliseum this winter, it is going to require a great effort from our fans as well."
The home games include Missouri State (Nov. 25), Akron (Dec. 4), Old Dominion (Dec. 21) and the ESPN BracketBuster game, which could be on national television (Feb. 23).
The 20-game winners include:
n Missouri State (22-1): The Eagles beat the Bears of the Missouri Valley Conference on the road in the BracketBuster last year, and this is a return game. The Bears lost in the NIT first round.
n West Virginia (27-9): The Mountaineers, who host the Eagles on Dec. 1, were 9-7 in the Big East Conference last year, but won the NIT. And they're coached by Bob Huggins, who takes over this season.
n Akron (26-7): The Zips finished first in the Mid-American Conference East Division last year, but lost in the conference finals and didn't get a postseason bid. No team had more wins and failed to play in the post season.
n Mississippi (21-13): The Rebels finished 8-8 in the SEC West and lost in the NIT second round under first-year coach Andy Kennedy. They'll be one of the SEC West favorites this year and host the Eagles on Dec. 13.
n Old Dominion (24-9): The Eagles beat the Monarchs on the road last year, but ODU finished second in the Colonial Athletic Conference and made the NCAA tournament.
The Eagles open the season Nov. 10 at home with Queens College (20-10), which reached the NCAA Division II tournament, play Limestone (20-9) and future Big South member Presbyterian (20-8) in non-league games and face High Point (22-10), which was the runner-up to the Eagles in the Big South regular-season race, at least twice.
Eight of the first 12 games are on the road, which, Peele said, might force him to change his mindset about how he approaches the year.
"Last year, our players wore shirts that said 'unfinished business,'" Peele said, "and anything short of an NCAA bid and a win would have been a disappointment for a lot of people. We were under a lot of pressure last year.
"This year, we're just going to focus on getting better."
Peele will have eight players who have never played an NCAA Division I game after losing Torrell Martin, Craig Bradshaw and Phillip Williams to graduation and De'Andre Adams, who died following a car crash in May.
The Eagles play Illinois-Chicago in the first round of the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands on Nov. 16. That field also includes Charlotte, Georgia Tech, Baylor, Monmouth, Notre Dame and Wichita State. The Eagles beat Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA tournament and Wichita State is now coached by Marshall.
Winthrop and Wichita State are in opposite brackets and could face each other for the title, if both win their first two games; for seventh place if they each lose their first two; or for fourth if they lose the opener and win the second game.
The Eagles, who could be picked to win the conference for a fourth straight year, open Big South play on the road Jan. 12 at High Point. They made Big South history last year by going 14-0 in the regular season.
"We've been the team to beat every year I've been here," said Peele, who has been a part of nine Big South regular season or tournament titles, including as the head coach at UNC Greensboro in 1996. "I'm fine with that, but I know the league has gotten better.
"We're not running away from the challenge."
For information on single-game and season tickets for Winthrop men's basketball, call (803) 323-2345 or go to winthropeagles.com.