The Winthrop Eagles find themselves at a pivotal point in the season as they take on Radford at 7 p.m. at the Coliseum today.
Winthrop (7-10, 3-4 Big South) lost its last two conference contests. The team is four games behind league-leader Coastal Carolina. The Eagles are in sixth place in the 10-team conference race.
The chances of a Winthrop regular-season championship are growing dim. The team has already lost to four of the five teams ahead of them in the standings.
Still, this team is just one game off the pace of the 2009-2010 team that finished 12-6 in conference play, secured the No. 3 seed in the Big South tournament, and then ran the table to earn the Big South's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Winthrop coach Randy Peele won the Big South tournament twice in his first three seasons. He's trying to find a way for this team to make it three out of four.
"It's hard to stay at a championship level," Peele said. "The last two losses were disappointing because we played hard. We didn't do some things well enough to win."
One of those things is showing patience on offense. In one series of possessions against Charleston Southern the Eagles fired up eight consecutive jump shots. The result of those missed shots was transition opportunities for the Bucs who went on to beat Winthrop 69-60.
Peele said his team has become "a bunch of jump shooters" at Tuesday's Coaches' Luncheon. That's not good.
Winthrop was last in the Big South in field goal percentage last year (.391) and are currently 8th (.397). The team was also last in 3-point field goal accuracy (.284) and have improved to 7th this season (.301).
The last two games were a great indicator that this team was settling for jump shots. At Coastal, Winthrop's first post feed came eight minutes into the game. At Charleston Southern, the Eagles only fed the post nine times.
Peele is also challenging his team to hold opponents under 60 points the rest of the way. They are giving up 69 now.
As much as anything else, Winthrop's schedule might allow them to crawl back into the top half of the league standings over the next five games.
The Eagles play Radford (4-13, 1-6 Big South) tonight. The Highlanders are a vastly different team that relied on size and power with Art Parakhouski, Joey Lynch-Flohr and Laz Trifunovic in recent years.
Radford lost four 1,000 point scorers from a year ago. They've lost two straight and the team's only Division I win came on Jan. 8 in a 64-59 win over High Point.
Winthrop hosts High Point (6-13, 2-5) on Saturday.
On Jan. 29, Winthrop plays at Presbyterian (8-11, 2-5) in the first of three road games in five days. The Eagles travel to Radford and to Gardner-Webb (6-13, 1-6).
The next five opponents' combined record in conference play is 7-28. Overall the teams are 23-48. Each team is on a losing streak, Radford and PC have lost two in a row, High Point has dropped eight straight and Gardner-Webb is winless in its last nine contests.
Three teams ahead of Winthrop -- Liberty, UNC Asheville and VMI --have a very difficult five-game stretch.
Liberty (13-7, 4-1) is currently in second place. The Flames play at home against fifth-place VMI and fourth-place UNC Asheville before hosting Gardner-Webb. The first week in February has Liberty at Coastal Carolina and third-place Charleston Southern.
The combined conference record of Liberty's five opponents: 21-15 (.583).
UNC Asheville (9-8, 4-3) has Coastal Carolina and Charleston Southern at home this week. Then it's off to Liberty and VMI before returning to the Justice Center for a game against Presbyterian.
The combined conference record of UNC Asheville's five opponents: 25-12 (.676).
VMI (11-7, 4-4) is at Liberty tonight. Next week the Keydets are home for games at Gardner-Webb and UNC Asheville. The following week the team plays at Charleston Southern and at Coastal Carolina.
The combined conference record of VMI's five opponents: 24-12 (.667).
A more patient, inside-out offensive approach and some trademark lockdown defense will serve the Eagles well for the next five games. That will set up a seven-game sprint to the end of the regular season.