In a lot of ways Winthrop has a very similar men’s basketball team to last year.
The Eagles lost all-time leading scorer Keon Johnson and several valuable role players, but they brought in seven new faces from a variety of different sources, including two more Australians to compliment standout senior Xavier Cooks.
“I’m bullish on our team, I really am,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey, who led the Eagles to the NCAA Tournament last spring.
The Big South feels similarly. The Eagles were picked second in Tuesday’s preseason poll released at the Big South Media Day in Charlotte. UNC Asheville was picked to win the league, while Campbell guard Chris Clemons, who exploded at the conference tournament in Rock Hill, was tagged the preseason player of the year.
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“He’s a super talented guy, who is a seeker and applier of knowledge, truly takes the content and applies it to his game,” said Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan.
For Winthrop, there is no replacing Johnson, the best scorer to ever play at the school.
“I call it ‘poof,’” said Kelsey. “He had this elite ability to just make offense happen out of thin air.
“I don’t know if we’re gonna have as much ‘poof,’” he continued, “but I really think we’re gonna have terrific ball movement and there will be more of a share of the scoring load.”
Like last year, the Eagles have a diverse array of talents for different situations.
Cooks, the 6-foot-8 Aussie who made first team All-Big South last year, is expected to assume the starring role. The sharp-shooting and defensively sound Broman brothers return and get backcourt help in junior college transfer Nych Smith, who can replicate some of Johnson’s burst to the rim, and 6-foot-2 guard Kyle Zunic, who shares some of Johnson’s innate toughness. Zunic has been involved in the Australian national team system for a long time and brings a savvy game to Rock Hill.
“Like, zero regard for his body on loose balls and charges,” said Kelsey, a sucker for toughness.
Cooks will anchor Winthrop down low, especially defensively, but another new Aussie, 6-foot-10 rookie Tom Pupavac, is an intriguing addition. Jermaine Ukaegbu, one of three junior college transfers, is an athletic rim-attacker that should contribute immediately, while Raivis Scerbinskis, the 6-foot-8 Latvian who redshirted last season, can stretch the floor with his 3-point shooting.
Cooks is the guy to get the ball in the clutch but there is no Keon Johnson on this team. Cooks thinks that will make this group of Eagles more dangerous at times.
“We’re trying to play that (San Antonio) Spurs-style of basketball,” said Cooks, “get everyone involved.”
There is plenty of competition for the five spots on the floor, another similarity to last year’s team. Kelsey remembered Roderick Perkins being on the outside looking in this time in 2016, only for the senior to scrap his way back into the rotation. It was Perkins who scored 15 first half points to help the Eagles knock off Campbell in the Big South championship game last year.
There is one more similarity that Kelsey thinks will surface as the season wears on.
“What we’re proud of, and this is a tribute to my staff, is we’ve been able to be playing our best basketball in March,” said Kelsey. “That’s what I think will happen with this team.”
2017-18 Winthrop men’s basketball roster
Big South preseason picks
First team: Chris Clemons, Campbell, Jr., G, 5-9, 185 (Raleigh); Xavier Cooks, Winthrop, Sr., G/F, 6-8, 185 (Wollongong, Australia); Ahmad Thomas, UNC Asheville, Sr., F, 6-3, 215 (Danville, Va.); MaCio Teague, UNC Asheville, Soph., G, 6-3, 190 (Cincinnati, Ohio); Christian Keeling, Charleston Southern, Soph., G, 6-4, 175 (Augusta, Ga.)
Men’s preseason poll
Team (first-place votes)
UNC Asheville (23)