Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey wouldn’t be drawn into commenting Wednesday night on the Eagles’ positioning in the Big South Conference with three games left in the regular season.
That was not surprising, but as a reporter sometimes you have to toss out questions in the hope of getting an eyebrow-raising response, all the while knowing you probably won’t. It wasn’t a surprise when he said, “we’re not worrying about who else we’ve got left on our schedule, what anybody else is doing. We don’t control our own destiny right now, but what we can control is how we prepare the next two days and our approach when we go up to Longwood on Saturday.”
What I think he meant to say was Winthrop’s men stand an excellent chance of snaring a first round bye in the league tournament, which begins March 4 at the HTC Center on the campus of Coastal Carolina. Kelsey’s team closes the regular season with arguably the easiest final three games of any Big South team – at Longwood, at Campbell, Presbyterian at home – save for Coastal, which plays the same three in a different combination.
Three wins would put the Eagles (15-11, 10-5) right in the hunt for the regular season title – Winthrop hasn’t won one since 2006-07 – and the accompanying automatic bid to at least the NIT. High Point, currently in first place at 11-4, has to tackle UNC Asheville (29-7 in Kimmel Arena against conference opponents) and Charleston Southern on the road in two of its final three, though the Panthers did sweep Winthrop head-to-head. Charleston Southern, also 11-4, faces Campbell and Gardner-Webb on the road before what could be a winner-takes-some finale against High Point on Feb. 28.
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Radford, Asheville and Gardner-Webb all face at least two of the top-seven teams in the league in their final three contests. Winthrop and Coastal are the only two that don’t face any. Longwood, Campbell and Presbyterian might not flutter the hearts of casual Winthrop fans, but they will be taken seriously. The first two of those games are on the road, and Longwood and Presbyterian have shown marked improvement this season. The Blue Hose nearly nicked the Eagles at home back in January, while coach Jayson Gee, a personal friend of Kelsey’s, has Longwood’s program leaning in the proper direction finally.
Still, if Winthrop is to continue taking steps to reestablishing its mid-2000s lordship over the Big South it needs to polish off teams positioned below it in the standings. Kelsey’s incessant laser focus on consistency is a key to doing just that, and so far the Eagles are 5-0 against teams in the bottom-four this season, a feat they hadn’t achieved the last two campaigns. That’s critical in such a clumped-together Big South standings table; Radford, Asheville and Gardner-Webb have all dropped a loss to the lower half of the league in the last two months.
Consistency is boring and doing the same things the same way all the time doesn’t always bear fruit. It is crucial in college basketball, though, especially considering 18 to 22-year-old males might be the most inconsistent demographic of adults.
“I’ve been very, very pleased with our guys’ approach to the daily – I won’t say grind – to the daily workload,” Kelsey said after Wednesday’s win over Asheville. “They know coach Kelsey is the Energizer Bunny. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m a 70, and a lot of guys aren’t like that on our team. But they bring a focused approach every day and I’m telling you they haven’t disappointed me in that regard this year.”
Looking at February records in the Big South the last two seasons, Winthrop is right there at the top, a game behind High Point.
February records are indicative because it’s the toughest stretch of the college basketball season. The game isn’t as much fun for the players. Nagging injuries begin to accrue. Winthrop trainer Jeff Lahr is working through his 50th tub of the muscle rub Octogen, and every practice smells like the minty paste. Coaches are tired and their families are even more so.
For a team to be playing some of the best ball in the league during the relentless final month of the regular season is a testament to the Eagles’ assiduous, albeit boring, attention to consistency. It also suggests there is improvement in the program’s March dividends looming on the horizon, which would give lousy reporters material for better lines of postgame questioning.