In Winthrop's recent dominance of the Big South Conference, there has been one constant.
If you come to play the Eagles, you'd best be prepared for some jaw-to-jaw, man-to-man with some zone thrown in and now and then, a little full-court pressure. The Eagles have led the league in scoring defense for nine straight seasons and have been at or near the top every year in field goal percentage defense and 3-point percentage defense.
Winthrop coach Randy Peele isn't totally satisfied with his defense -- name a coach who is -- but he's liking what he's seeing from the Eagles (12-7, 3-1 Big South), who host Coastal Carolina (9-8, 2-2) at 7 p.m. today in the Winthrop Coliseum.
"We're starting to come around defensively," Peele said.
And that's important in Peele's mind, because it's getting close to February.
"If you want to gauge a team," he's said, "look at how they're playing in February."
Through four games of league play, the Eagles are at the top in three key defensive categories and second in another. They're holding teams to 52.5 points, almost 10 better than No. 2 High Point. They're leading in field goal percentage defense (.366), the only team holding opponents under 40 percent. And they're tops in steals at 10 per game. They're second in 3-point field goal percentage defense (.327).
All numbers Peele likes, and they stem from a change in attitude. The Eagles appear to have bought into the coaching and added the effort necessary.
On Jan. 23, when VMI played without leading scorer Reggie Williams, the Eagles could have taken a deep breath and relaxed on defense. Instead, they seemed to crank up the pressure even more, particularly in the second half.
"That's how we're coached," freshman point guard Justin Burton said. "You can't let up. We still had to shut them down."
In most games, Peele comes up with a number of points to hold the opposition to. Against VMI it was 60, but when Williams didn't play, Peele dropped it to 42 at the half. The Keydets scored 41.
But the magic number for the Eagles is 60.
"When we hold teams to 60 or less," Peele said, "we're undefeated. We've got a chance."
Winthrop's only loss in the league was at High Point by a point. The Panthers scored 62. In the past three games, the Eagles have allowed 48, 59 and 41. They've held those three teams to a combined 33 percent shooting, 28 percent on 3-pointers.
Mantoris Robinson, the 6-foot-5 sophomore, has become the team's perimeter stopper and has guarded everyone from 6-8 Alex McLean at Liberty to Amir Johnson, Radford's 5-10 point guard.
Robinson's play has been even more important in the absence of 6-3 senior Antwon Harris, who suffered a bone bruise of his right ankle prior to the High Point game on Jan. 12 and has not practiced since. Harris isn't expected to play today.
The Eagles are also getting on the boards, thanks to improved play from freshmen Charles Corbin and George Valentine and junior college transfer Andy Buechert, who had 12 rebounds against VMI.
"Our ability to defend is so important," Peele said. "The players have bought into it. They're doing a great job of being coachable right now. We're getting better, but we're not where I want us to be right now."
He may have a better idea of just how good they are after tonight, when first-year coach Cliff Ellis brings his guard-oriented, Princeton-like attack to town.
The Chants, who lost 6-5 forward Joseph Harris to a season-ending thumb injury, aren't very big and have trouble on the boards. But they've got a group of scorers led by 6-3 senior guard Jack Leasure, who's averaging 16.2 points and making a league-best 48 percent of his 3-pointers. Everage Richardson, a 6-3 senior, has been coming off the bench recently, but averages 13.8 points and makes 36 percent of his 3-pointers.
Guards Mario Sisinni and Steven Sexton can also shoot the jumper, and 6-5 freshman Anthony Breeze, who was offered a scholarship by the Eagles, provides a post presence.
"Leasure and Richardson can really score," Peele said. "We've got to locate Leasure in transition and we can't let him make shots that we think are out of his range."
Leasure, one of the best shooters the Big South has seen, has deep, deep range.
Coastal has been on a rollercoaster of late. The Chants beat Radford at home by a point, blew a 17-point lead and lost at home to VMI, went on the road and thumped High Point and lost at Liberty on Jan. 21.
Their magic number seems to be 70. They have only two wins when they've scored fewer than 76 points. They average 75 a game.
Peele says the Eagles need to keep bringing the D in order to keep on the heels of UNC Asheville. The Bulldogs lead the Big South at 4-0 going into today's game at Charleston Southern.
The Eagles are a game back, while every other team has at least two league losses.
"We're 1-3 and we need to win," Peele said.
BIG SOUTH CONFERENCE
W L Pct. W L Pct.
UNC Asheville 4 0 1.000 15 4 .789
Winthrop 3 1 .750 12 7 .632
Coastal Carolina 2 2 .500 9 8 .529
High Point 2 2 .500 10 8 .556
Liberty 2 2 .500 10 9 .526
VMI 2 2 .500 10 8 .556
Chas. Southern 1 3 .250 7 12 .368
Radford 0 4 .000 5 14 .263
Winthrop 85, VMI 41
UNC Asheville 82, Radford 63
High Point 68, Longwood 54
Coastal Carolina at Winthrop, 7 p.m.
UNC Asheville at Charleston Southern, 7:30 p.m.
High Point at Liberty, 9 p.m.
High Point at Radford, 7 p.m.
Winthrop at Charleston Southern, 7:30 p.m.
Liberty at VMI, 7 p.m.
UNC Asheville at Coastal Carolina, 7 p.m.
• Winthrop Gameday • 2D
• Winthrop women's hoops advance • 2D