February 21, 2008

In big picture, Eagles not sweating Wildcats

For a man whose basketball team is 18-9, in first place in the Big South Conference and in control of its regular-season destiny, Winthrop coach Randy Peele was a tad on edge Thursday.

Less than 24 hours earlier the Eagles had won another key road game, beating VMI 80-70. While the Eagles were winning, UNC Asheville, who two weeks ago seemingly had a stranglehold on first place, was losing at Radford, the team's fourth straight. Winthrop, 9-3 in the league, has a game-and-a-half lead on the Bulldogs (7-4) with less than two weeks left in the regular season, and Asheville still has to come to Winthrop to play.

The Eagles, who have won three straight and seven of the past nine league titles, need two more wins and they'll win the regular-season championship and have the chance to host every game they play in the conference tournament.

For the Eagles, times are good.

But Peele was scratching his head and more than a bit upset because his defense had given up 70 points at VMI, which was only 23 points under the Keydets' per-game average.

"Can't help it," he said. "It's the way I am. We've got to keep our edge. I don't want us to lose sight of what Asheville's been through. There are 10 days left in the regular season. That's a lot of time."

Of course, while he was worried about the 70 points allowed at VMI, he was also watching tape of tonight's opponent in the Winthrop Coliseum -- the red-hot Davidson Wildcats, who are 20-6 and have won 16 straight games, the nation's second-longest winning streak.

The Eagles and the Wildcats hook up in a 7 p.m. game on ESPN2 in the first of 14 TV games in this weekend's O'Reilly's ESPNU BracketBuster series. A crowd of at least 5,000 and perhaps a full house will be there.

You watch Stephen Curry come off enough screens and rain 3-pointers, and you'll be scratching your head, too.

"He's a fabulous player," Peele said.

Even that had the coach shaking his head. Peele watches Curry drop 3s, and if his legs were long enough, he'd kick himself in the backside for not recruiting Curry harder. Winthrop offered Curry a grant-in-aid, but didn't go after him the way hindsight says it should have.

"That bothers me," Peele said. "But I think he found the right fit for him."

So in between worrying about giving up 70 and hoping Curry doesn't get that many tonight, Peele had to get his team ready to play the Wildcats.

Peele, a stickler for detail to the point he can probably tell you if an opponent has a button missing on his Sunday shirt, was worried about having only one day to prepare after getting back from VMI early Thursday.

He decided his team couldn't really go hard during Thursday's practice and that he really didn't have time to come up with an in-depth game plan. And Davidson, having played Tuesday, didn't have much time, either.

In other words, this is a game where two teams will basically go out and play with nothing on the line in terms of conference championships or NCAA tournament seedings. Unless both teams win their respective conference tournaments, they won't be going to the dance.

This is a gravy game to go with the meat-and-potatoes conference schedule.

It should have the feel of a second-round NCAA game.

One day to prepare. Best team wins.

It is, Peele said, "like playing with house money." Winthrop can go out and see how it stands against the Wildcats.

Of course, getting a late-February test goes for the Wildcats, too, who have been the Winthrop of the Southern Conference the past three years, dominating that league.

Except Davidson hasn't won an NCAA tournament game.

Coach Bob McKillop's Wildcats look a lot like the Winthrop of a year ago. They've played an amazingly tough schedule -- tougher than what Winthrop played a year ago -- in losing to North Carolina, Duke, UCLA and N.C. State. Of course, they also lost to Western Michigan and Charlotte.

A year ago, Winthrop lost at Texas A&M, Wisconsin and Maryland and to North Carolina on a neutral court. But they also won at Mississippi State, Old Dominion, Northern Illinois and East Carolina and beat Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAAs.

The Eagles also won at Missouri State in the BracketBuster, a game much like tonight's. Friday night. National TV. A chance to test themselves and get some national exposure.

It was a big road win for the Eagles, one that gave them a boost for the Big South stretch run.

"Like we did last year," Peele said, "they have the ability to go out and win an NCAA tournament game. We want to test our defense against the best offensive team in the Southern Conference and see what we can do."

If Davidson wins tonight, it would be the Wildcats' best win of the season outside the SoCon.

If Winthrop wins, a lot of people, forgetting recent history, will call it an upset.

This should be a fun game, but you can bet it will be agony for Peele, who worries so much about details he's still looking for the perfect backscreen.

While worrying about how to stop Curry and how to deal with a physical, well-coached, disciplined Davidson team, Peele did admit there was something special about this one.

"The beauty of this game," he said, "is that Winthrop and Davidson get to play on Friday night, on national television. That indicates the respect our programs have on the national level. It's the prime time game."

So, why worry? Just go play.

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