Winthrop men’s basketball is having to develop its fledgling frontcourt on the fly, but the Eagles may have a strong enough arsenal in the backcourt to survive that process.
Winthrop’s 77-74 win over Clemson on Monday night – the program’s fifth victory in 39 games against ACC competition – may prove to be the model case study.
With seniors James Bourne and Larry Brown both sidelined by long-term injuries, Eagles post players against Clemson included junior Tevin Prescott, sophomore Jarad Scott and freshmen Xavier Cooks, Joseph Lopez and Duby Okeke (a redshirt), while 6-foot-4 sophomore Josh Davenport also played in the post in some instances. The six combined for 14 points, 15 rebounds and 22 fouls; 6-foot-10 Clemson center Landry Nnoko led the Tigers with 19 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots.
But the beat poet-cool play of the Eagles’ backcourt ultimately made the big guys’ struggles and inexperience surmountable issues. After scoring just a point in the opener against Pfeiffer, sophomore Keon Johnson poured in a game-high 19 on 5-of-8 shooting and added three assists with no turnovers.
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“It was good to see,” Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “The Keon of old, the Keon we’ve come to expect. He’s an explosive offensive player and he’s fearless in tough environments against big-time opponents.”
Winthrop turned the ball over six times against the Tigers, a top-20 defensive team in the country last season. Even better, just one of the giveaways came from an Eagles guard, and none in the last 33 minutes of the 40-minute contest.
“Ball security, from a coach’s standpoint is huge in a really, really tough game against a tough opponent,” said Kelsey. “Overall, I sleep well at night knowing we’re going to take care of the ball because of the experience of our guards.”
Keon Moore had another productive scoring game with 18 points, while Andre Smith added 16 and four assists, and Derrick Henry 10 points. The four guards combined to hit 17-of-20 free throws, scored 63 of the team’s 77 points, and though it wasn’t their best shooting night from the field – combined 19-of-37 – their zip-lock tight ball-handling ensured it was always going to be a challenge for the Tigers to win on their home deck.
“They spread you out and have great guard play,” said Clemson coach Brad Brownell after the game. “They have speed; they can dribble; they can pass; they can make threes. So they stretch you and it’s a tough matchup. It becomes a question of can your big guys do enough to offset that?”
Turned out Winthrop’s big guys did enough to augment their guards.
It’s clear there is potential in this group. Okeke is a 6-foot-8 Adonis – no exaggeration – and his athleticism and size bring a dynamic to the team that’s uncommon in the Big South.
Cooks and Lopez look like eventual contributors too, and likely this season. Both were held up in preseason by bouts of mono that they unwittingly shared as roommates. But Lopez’s grit and hunger on the boards are traits that Kelsey saw immediately during the recruiting process, and are characteristics the coach says translate to any level of basketball. And Cooks just seems to have a smoothness to his physical movements that makes him a natural to score the ball.
Scott is also looking more confident and aggressive so far through two games – it’s only two games – while Prescott continues to be a steady presence, with his calm demeanor and serious hops.
Usually only two of those guys were on the court at the same time Monday, but the group did contribute to Nnoko’s seven turnovers. Kelsey seemed to prefer a three-guard lineup, which suits the team’s roster strengths exactly. But he was pleased with his youthful front-court’s contribution to a marquee win.
“For a bunch of young guys that haven’t played any college minutes to go into an atmosphere like that and play like they did, I couldn’t ask for more,” said Kelsey, before heading off to start Tuesday’s practice.