November 23, 2008

Don't panic Winthrop fans!

With success comes expectations, and there's no better example of that than Winthrop men's basketball.

With success comes expectations, and there's no better example of that than Winthrop men's basketball.

The Eagles have been so good for so long -- eight of the past 10 seasons for sure and nine if you want to count 2002-2003 when they were 20-10 and the best team in the Big South Conference but got upset in the semifinals of the league tournament -- the 1-3 start to this season is stunning.

Stunning in the record and stunning in the way the Eagles have lost -- by 23 to South Carolina, 14 at Akron and by 27 at Davidson this past Friday.

In the past 10 seasons, that's the first time Winthrop has lost three consecutive games by double-digit margins. In those 10 seasons, Winthrop has lost 95 games, but only 35 by double figures, including 16 by 20 or more.

That's an average of 9.5 losses a season and a lot of games the Eagles were in that they could have won.

So, the start to this season is creating some discomfort among the Winthrop faithful, who aren't used to disappointment. But before they go turning in their Eagle Club membership, they need to understand they aren't nearly as disappointed as the man running the show -- coach Randy Peele.

This past Thursday morning, even before that disastrous trip to Davidson, Peele sat in his office and talked about expectations -- his expectations.

"We've not been 1-2 since I've been here," he said, "and I'm personally struggling with that. I feel like I'm letting a lot of people down. There's a lot of emotion involved with this."

The level of expectations with this team, he said, "are, honestly, something we're not deserving of."

He was talking about the Big South preseason poll. The Eagles were tabbed to win the title despite not having a player on the preseason all-conference team, losing three starters and a key sub to graduation and Andy Buechert to a season-ending knee injury.

"Those expectations," he said, "put added pressure on a team with so many new guys."

But if there is one thing that will rescue this season -- and there are no guarantees that will happen given the schedule and team's weaknesses -- it's Peele's resolve to turn things around.

This guy hates losing. He hates being embarrassed by double figures. Most of all, he hates excuses.

So, don't expect him to complain about how young his team or the schedule. He knew the former was going to be the case, and he's responsible for the latter. He knew after last season, losing so many players, he knew this was going to be a rebuilding year. And he knew from the beginning he'd over-scheduled this team.

But he also knows a team doesn't get better by playing Maryland Bible College, Coker or Montreat. It gets better -- sometimes by losing -- to teams from the SEC, Mid-American and Southern Conferences. Despite the record, the Eagles are better than they were a month ago, a week ago even.

Right now, the Eagles are in the same boat with a lot of Big South teams. The league's overall record is 13-20, with seven of the 10 teams at .500 or less. Five teams have losing records, and three are winless. VMI's win at Kentucky is the only signature win of the early season.

There's plenty of time for a turnaround, if the Eagles find some consistent scoring, if they learn to defend the post better, if they defend a little harder, take care of the ball better.

With a young team, those are big ifs.

But on Sunday afternoon, the Eagles were back at it. Peele and assistants Larry Dixon, Paul Molinari and Marty McGillan were getting after some guys and some guys responded.

"I remind you," Peele screamed, "every job is open right now."

When they all respond, Peele will know they're really getting better.

The Eagles go to N.C. State on Tuesday night, the fourth-straight road game against a team most would assume will beat the Eagles.

Peele is not among those who expect the Eagles to lose, ever.

"I expect to win," he said last week.

He also expects something else.

"In my heart, I know a team has to go through some adversity to be a champion," he said, "and we're experiencing a lot of it right now."

Oh, there's one other thing about the past 10 years and those losses.

They lost four double-figure games in 2007-08, three in 2006-07, two in 2005-06, three in 2004-05, four in 2001-02, four in 2000-01, four in 1999-200 and four in 1998-99.

They also won the Big South all of those years.

"I want to be successful now," Peele said, "and we come out to win every game. We want to win the Big South regular season and the tournament. None of that's changed."

And that, after all, has become the biggest expectation of all at Winthrop.

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