Winthrop commences its 2017-18 men’s basketball season Friday night against Southern Illinois with plenty of questions, but exciting ones:
▪ Can the Eagles get back to the NCAA Tournament again?
▪ What can Xavier Cooks do in his clear role as the lead man, especially after a productive summer with the Australian national team?
▪ Who are all these new guys?
Pat Kelsey’s program has lost just three times in the 2017 calendar year. After falling to Radford on New Year’s Eve 2016, the Eagles were only beaten by High Point, UNC Asheville and Butler the rest of last season.
Southern Illinois represents a strong mid-major visitor to Rock Hill. Few teams in that category were stronger than Winthrop under Gregg Marshall in the mid-2000s, but Southern Illinois was certainly in that elite group. They won at least 22 games each season from 2001-02 to 2006-07, reaching a pair of NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteens.
“There is great mystique and great tradition there,” said Kelsey, who added that Salukis coach Barry Hinson is known for his culinary abilities in front of a smoking hot grill.
Not only will Winthrop get to dwell on the 2016-17 team one last time when it shows off a new NCAA Tournament banner, but it will also get to show fans what its latest iteration looks like. If this week’s practices were an indication, the team will screw up plenty but play very hard. Eight players could make their Winthrop debuts on Friday, which further explains the miscommunication and defensive lapses that are a part of any preseason but will likely pop up for Kelsey’s crew in the early going.
But the Eagles’ effort in practice was evident, especially on Monday.
“Did you think they were playing hard?” Kelsey asked a reporter, who did indeed thought the Eagles were. “Because I like to think that’s the norm. I didn’t sit there and walk out and go, ‘man, we played hard today.’ You’d like to think that’s the expectation.”
No question Cooks is the team’s best player and its talisman as the Eagles look to earn another championship banner to supplement the newest one. But Kelsey said that the Broman brothers, redshirt senior Anders and junior Bjorn, are the beating heart of the team’s toughness.
“I swear if you went up on a Sunday night in Minnesota and they’re at home, their family goes down in the basement and takes charges for 20, 25 minutes,” said Kelsey. “They’re just tough, tough kids and our guys feed off that.”
Both teams playing Friday are seeking clearer insight on player rotations.
Hinson’s latest team lost its top-three players from last year’s 17-win club. And two of the Salukis’ likely starters, 6-foot-8 Thik Bol, who had surgery on his knee and will miss at least six weeks, and point guard Marcus Bartley, who will miss around the same amount of time with a broken wrist, are both out for the opener against Winthrop.
Kelsey, meanwhile, is spoiled for choice. He said in late October that he had a starting five in mind but Winthrop’s coach will again have a deep roster full of specialists and unique talents to call upon.
“Roles are defined going into the season and Game 1, but roles aren’t defined for the rest of the season,” said Kelsey. “They can change on a week to week basis because of our depth and because there are so many guys fighting for spots and fighting for minutes.”
Winthrop Eagles that could make their debut Friday
Raivis Scerbinskis – is the only one of the eight potential debutants that was with the program last year. The 6-foot-8 Latvian redshirt freshman is a skilled and comfortable shooter from the outside, so much so that during practices last year there was an unofficial rule that he had to put the ball on the deck and drive or coach Pat Kelsey yelled at him.
Nych Smith – Smith has the best calf muscles on the team without question, indicative of the explosive quickness he possesses. Winthrop can’t replace Keon Johnson with one player, but Smith is the most similar in terms of burst with the basketball. Smith, a junior guard who was at Fordham then transferred back to the junior college ranks, could be a key contributor for the Eagles once he gets up to snuff defensively.
Austin Awad – it’ll be interesting to see where Awad, a 6-foot-6 junior college transfer, fits in as far as rotation and playing time. But he has a varied skill set – he can shoot it from the outside –, he’s a gung-ho backboard crasher, and will enhance the team’s chemistry and good habits regardless of playing time.
Tom Pupavac – Cracker Barrel. Or Hardees. Or Bojangles. These are the places that the 6-foot-10 Australian needs to be hanging out as he copes with his first year of American college basketball. Winthrop could really benefit from Pupavac emerging as a freshman because he has a lot of potential as a big man that can stretch the defense with his outside shooting.
Jermaine Ukaegbu – very athletic lefty comes from the junior college level after spending his freshman season at Division I Sacred Heart. Ukaegbu will have a big role to play, especially if his defensive and energy contributions areas expected. The 6-foot-6 junior could also be the best dunker on the team.
Kyle Zunic – the other new Aussie might be the most advanced freshmen thanks to the elite coaching he’s received for many years as a part of the Australian Institute of Sport, the same academy that produced Winthrop star Xavier Cooks. Zunic, 6-foot-2, isn’t elite athletically but he has good size and all the intangibles, especially defensively, that will make him a favorite of Kelsey.
Charles Falden – maybe the least is known about Falden, who was a late high school signee out of Virginia. But the 6-foot-2 guard has a sturdy build and looks capable offensively. If he gets on the court ahead of some of the other newcomers, it will be because of defensive attentiveness. Teammates and coaches call him “Chuck.”
Keondre Schumacher – an elite shooting freshman from Illinois who will have to scrap for playing time – just like numerous others – in a crowded Winthrop backcourt. Schumacher has an eye blink-quick shooting release and offers the Eagles depth in the backcourt since he can play both guard positions.