Sitting at 5-6 in the Big South Conference, Winthrop's Eagles are slap in the middle of the standings, just as close to first place as last.
With seven conference games left in the regular season, the Eagles still have time, with some help, to pull off a miracle and finish first in the regular-season race.
This time a year ago, they were three games behind UNC Asheville and did just that. Granted, this year's team doesn't have the experience that squad had, and it hasn't shot the ball well or won often enough at home to make another rally seem plausible.
Winthrop suffered a difficult 59-55 home loss to Radford on Monday night that didn't help the cause, and at 7 p.m. today the Eagles (6-15, 5-6 Big South) host VMI (17-4, 8-2). On Saturday, they go to Liberty to cap a brutal three-game stretch.
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"But," Win-throp coach Randy Peele said, "this stretch is not make or break."
The conference tournament the first week of March will be make-or-break time. Peele has already explained the situation to his players, particularly the freshmen who haven't been through this kind of late-season pressure. He has told them the goal is to at least get into the top four of the standings in order to land a first-round home game in the conference tournament.
But he hasn't given up on doing what the Eagles have done better than anyone in the Big South the past 10 seasons -- winning a championship.
"The thing about this era of kid," Peele said, "is they all seem to have built in excuses. Right now, we can't have any excuses for performance. If we have excuses, we're not going to progress."
The Radford game, Peele said, proved his point about his team getting better. The Eagles lost by 21 at Radford in December, giving up 73 points. On Monday, they defended well enough to win, held the Highlanders to 40 percent shooting and had 19 offensive rebounds. The only thing the Eagles didn't do was make a shot -- 29 percent overall, 1-for-20 on 3-pointers.
"That's why I talk about February," Peele said. "You've got to have a single-mindedness about improvement and effort."
The Keydets, off to their best start ever in the Big South and with the most overall wins since the 1995-96 season, will be another gauge of improvement. VMI beat Winthrop 92-74 on Dec. 3. The Keydets used a 20-4 run over a three-minute stretch in the first half to turn a close game into a rout.
Coach Duggar Baucom's team did what it does best, making 16 of 41 3-pointers and turning the game into an up tempo affair.
If the Eagles have improved, they'll have to change those components. Tonight's matchup can't be a 3-point shooting contest, and it can't be a game in the 80s, maybe not even the 70s.
The Keydets have won 12 of their last 14, but are coming off a 103-95 overtime loss at home to UNC Asheville on Monday. They trail Radford by percentage points for first place and would fall into second place with a loss. VMI's two league losses have come at home. Overall, they're 7-2 on the road. VMI has not won at the Winthrop Coliseum since joining the Big South.
Asheville thrashed the Keydets 51-29 on the boards and shot 56 percent. They also limited VMI to 12-of-31 on 3-pointers. If there's a formula to beat the Keydets, that's it.
The Eagles have been doing a couple of those things -- rebounding and defending -- reasonably well. The shooting has been a crapshoot. Guards Reggie Middleton and Andre Jones were a combined 5-for-29 against Radford when a couple of made jumpers by either of them could have meant a win.
"I keep telling them, I'm confident the shots are going to fall," Peele said. "I really believe we're going to make shots.
Charles Corbin was the workhorse against Radford, with 15 points and 13 rebounds, his first double-double of the year. He made 6 of 16 shots.
Going against VMI after facing Radford, he said, is just the way it goes.
"Every time we have to play," Corbin said, "we just have to be ready to compete."
Peele understands the expectations.
Winthrop hasn't won fewer than 10 conference games for nine straight seasons. The Eagles have won 20 or more games a Big South-record four straight years. Unless the Eagles run the rest of the regular-season table and make a deep postseason run, the 20-win streak is over. The 10 league wins -- maybe more -- are not.
The six league losses are the most since the Eagles finished 10-6 in 2003-04, but that was good enough for second-place tie. They haven't lost more than six games in the league since going 4-8 during the 1997-98 season.
"The expectations with this program are strong," Peele said, "and that weighs on me every single day."
VMI (17-4, 8-2) AT WINTHROP (6-15, 5-6)
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Winthrop Coliseum
Radio: WRHM-FM (107.1), airtime 6:30 p.m.
Tickets: Winthrop box office