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Next year, the Eagles will ...

The Winthrop Eagles men's basketball team won the 2009-10 Big South Conference tournament title and returned to the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus.

The Eagles picked up the pieces after a 5-9 start and earned the third seed in the conference tournament, where they won two games on the road.

Winthrop has been a defensive-minded, tournament-style team for more than a decade, which has landed the Eagles nine appearances the last 12 years.

The Eagles did it this year despite being the worst team in the league in shooting -- overall and from 3-point distance. The Eagles were second worst in free throw shooting and scoring offense.

With this season in the books, here's five questions to ponder heading into the 2010-11 season:

1. Will anybody on this team be able to shoot the ball or will a shooter be recruited?

Only one player has proven to be a shooter. Matt Morgan was one of only three players that shot better than 40 percent (.504). The 6-foot-9 forward will be a junior next season and has shown the ability to knock down baseline jumpers a step inside the 3-point line. He made 64-of-122 shots (52.5 percent) and averaged 12.7 points in his last 12 games.

Returning guards Andre Jones and Gideon Gamble would benefit from a summer filled with shooting routines. They were brought to Winthrop as scorers but combined to hit less than a third of their shots.

Shooting is where the Eagles need the most help, or, where they'll have to make the biggest improvement. That was uncovered and exposed by Arkansas-Pine Bluff last Tuesday night. Winthrop shot 29 percent from the floor and made just 2-of-21 3-point attempts. The back court combined to make just 3-of-26 shots vs. UAPB, but it wasn't just one game. Winthrop struggled all year.

Opponents practically invited the Eagles to take outside shots. Of 334 Division I schools, Winthrop ranked 329th in field goal percentage, dropping from 325th following their 15-for-66 shooting performance in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

Jones must rebound from a sophomore slump that saw his scoring average drop from 9.1 points per game to 5.9. Jones started the first 13 games before being replaced by freshman Robbie Dreher.

Gamble is a lanky 6-foot-7 player with a lot of range and hit some big shots this year as a redshirt-freshman. His effectiveness was spotty, though. He averaged 3.5 points and made 26 percent of his 3s. He wilted down the stretch making just 1-of-12 shots from the floor and 1-of-7 3-point attempts in his final four games.

Dreher had an outside shot in high school but became a hesitant shooter late this season. Coach Randy Peele has started talking about reworking Dreher's mechanics this off-season. There is a lot of work to be done.

2. Who will be the defensive stopper and assume Mantoris Robinson's role?

Sophomore Reggie Middleton came a long way toward becoming a great defender in his sophomore year. Peele often spoke of Robinson and Middleton in the same sentence late in the year when talking defense. Middleton has the personality and the desire to begin carrying the team.

Robinson was a two-time Big South Defensive Player of the Year and covered up mistakes by his teammates. One thing is for sure with any team of Peele's though, they will defend.

Other potential stoppers could be George Valentine and Dreher. Valentine, a 6-8 center returns from season-ending wrist surgery that limited him to seven games this year. He was considered the team's second-best defender going into the season. He has 31 blocked shots and 49 steals to his credit in two-plus seasons.

Dreher took on tough defensive assignments most of the season as a freshman. He made his mark more on the defensive end of the court than on offense.

3. Will Julius Francis be ready to play at the Division I level?

Yes. Francis is a 6-11 center with a lot of upside. He is from Nigeria and was redshirted this season. He gained a lot of confidence in practice and received a lot of individual attention from Winthrop assistant Marty McGillan. His footwork has improved and he seems to move with purpose around the basket.

His size makes him valuable to Winthrop next season without 6-9 center Andy Buechert, who has played out his eligibility. Francis will be best served as a reserve player for next year or two. He can learn from Valentine and Charles Corbin, who will be a senior forward/center.

Francis signed with Winthrop after being released from his scholarship at Southern Methodist. Peele first saw Francis during a recruiting trip to Nigeria during the summer of 2006.

4. Winthrop has signed Joey Jerome and Martaveous Smith. Is either an impact freshman?

Jerome, out of Marietta, Ga., has the best chance to contribute right away. He's listed between 6-4 and 6-6 depending on which source you go to. He will play small forward and may, according to Peele, become a Robinson-type defender. He should come in as a more refined scorer than Robinson was as a freshman. Jerome hits the offensive glass and has the ability to shoot 3's.

Smith was at Winthrop's final home game to check out his future home floor. At 6-9 and 220 pounds he has good post size and is said to run well and to possess good hands. Smith will have Morgan, Corbin, Valentine, Francis and Chris Malcolm ahead of him on any preseason depth chart. He'll have to really turn some heads to log minutes as a freshman.

5. Will the Eagles get back to the NCAA tournament next season with a chance to advance?

It all depends on Winthrop's ability to put the ball in the basket.

Winthrop won't lose an awful lot on offense next season. Robinson scored 8.3 points and Buechert added 5.7.

Seniors Chad DeWitt (14 games) and Ray Davis (seven games) saw limited action anyway.

They will feel the loss of Robinson and Buechert on defense. If the Eagles gives up more than the 61.4 points per game they allowed this year they, will have to find a way to increase their 61.9-point output.

Don't expect Peele to change his tournament-style of play. He will want to limit possessions the same way he has his first three seasons at the helm of the Eagles. Peele has led the team to the NCAA tournament two times.

By the same token, no one should believe that Winthrop will win the Big South next year if the team shoots 38 percent again.

The 2010-2011 Eagles' trio of Corbin, Middleton and Morgan will have to show they are capable of carrying the team if Winthrop is to have a chance to advance in the middle of March 2011. Those three could combine to put up between 30 and 35 points a game. It's up to Peele to scare up another 30-35 points every night.

Any combination will do. Jones, Gamble, Dreher and Justin Burton. Valentine, Malcolm and Francis. Even, Jerome and Smith.

Just make shots. Short of that, Winthrop won't get back to March Madness.

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