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Up-and-down Winthrop still searching for identity

All you need to know about Winthrop basketball at the moment was right there, in the way Eagles coach Randy Peele described their opponents.

Campbell, which had just beaten his guys, was described as having "a bunch of really good players."

Gardner-Webb, tonight's opponent, was "a team that plays really well together."

His team, as it has been all season, is stuck somewhere between.

They've controlled home games against conference leader UNC Asheville (up by 14) and second-place Campbell (13). Lost both.

They've looked sloppy and disorganized on the road against backmarkers Presbyterian and Liberty. Won both.

There have been times of individual excellence, particularly from Andre Jones, but also from George Valentine and sometimes Reggie Middleton.

There are moments of team-play brilliance, when the freshmen step up for key moments, the defensive stops come more often.

But the problem for Winthrop (7-12 overall, 4-4 Big South) is that there haven't been enough of either for a team to form any consistent sense of who they are.

Peele shakes his head at the losses, bows his back at the wins. He thinks this team is still pretty good. And it might be. But pushing toward the end of January, it's still looking for an identity, and seemingly no closer to finding it than in November.

The coach is easy to blame, but seldom is the answer as easy as disgruntled fans want it to be.

Jones is the only consistent scorer he has, so he plays Jones often to the point of exhaustion. But Jones may also be the hardest worker on the team. More than an hour after the loss to Campbell, he was still in the gym, yet to shower and change, shooting jump-shots methodically, repeatedly.

The ostensible heir to that job is freshman Derrick Henry, who starts but averages just seven minutes a game over the last four games (naturally, they've split those four). Henry gets pulled at the first time-out in favor of Joab Jerome, their best perimeter defender.

So, does Peele sacrifice his preferred and familiar lock-down defense for a chance at a more dynamic scoring punch? And can he survive long stretches without Jones on the floor? There doesn't seem to be a consistent pattern to it, which makes it no surprise the results have been uneven.

The same quandary confronts them in the post.

Power forward James Bourne has proven to be their most reliable freshman, and has supplanted senior Matt Morgan in the starting lineup. Bourne's playing more than Henry, but Morgan's getting plenty of minutes too, in deference to his mid-range game and ability to score, even though he's not a banger and never will be.

So stick with the one who gives you a chance to stop the other guy? Or the one who might create a mismatch on the other end?

Against Campbell Tuesday, they got the converse of both -- with Bourne missing free throws late and Morgan unable to impersonate defense well enough to commit a foul on the guy they needed to foul.

That's why Peele perpetually carries the look of a man with too much on his mind. His team, as presently utilized, is nearly impossible to figure. Just when it looked like senior point guard Reggie Middleton had figured out when to pull up and dish, he's right back to the blind-dashes to the hoop that too often leave him no good options when he gets there.

It's maddening to watch for the inconsistency of it all, but the bright spots are also frequent enough to fuel belief -- at least from Peele.

"I'll tell you what I'm not going to do," he replied after struggling to find answers for Tuesday's collapse. "I'm not going to get down on them. I'm not going to beat them up.

"Those guys are playing their guts out right now."

By most visible standards, that's the truth. They're playing hard. They're just not always playing well.

Before the season started, the league's coaches were asked to rank the teams in the Big South in order. Winthrop was slotted fifth.

At the moment, that appears to be the perfect spot for them -- stuck somewhere between the place they could be if everything goes right, and the place they've too often landed when it doesn't.