Same, but different for Eagles

Winthrop basketball coach Randy Peele talks to his players during practice.
Winthrop basketball coach Randy Peele talks to his players during practice.

At 6:55 Friday night, Randy Peele called his players to center court at the Winthrop Coliseum for the first official day of practice and officially became the man running the Winthrop basketball program.

Since riding the emotional roller coaster of the spring and summer that included getting the job in April, enduring the crushing loss of De'Andre Adams in May, running the day-to-day operations, putting together a schedule and recruiting, Peele has probably felt more like a caretaker than a coach.

"I haven't had time to feel," he said.

As he called the players together on that shiny new floor and just under that impressive video scoreboard, he told them three things.

He told them how much confidence he had in them, in part because he had said earlier in the week he hadn't voted his team No. 1 in the league's preseason poll. His confidence, he said, "is about this high." He held a hand about a foot over his head.

"I wanted to answer that question," he said later.

He brought up Adams, who died from injuries in that awful auto accident in Georgia. Several of the players wore the writstband bearing Adams' name.

"I thought about De'Andre all day," Peele said. "Every day is the first day without De'Andre. That really hit me this morning. I told them to just remember his spirit and passion. I could see in the eyes of a couple of guys they were touched."

Finally, he told them they had to listen, not just with their ears, but with their eyes, because there's a lot for this team to learn.

At the stroke of 7 p.m., the Eagles went to work and Peele was back, running an upbeat practice that last for more than two-and-a-half hours. What he did on Friday night is what he's been doing for four years with the program, just not to the same level. And that's something that people on the outside of Winthrop basketball don't understand.

On Monday, at the league's media get-together in Concord, N.C., Peele was constantly asked what it's like to follow Gregg Marshall, like he was an outsider who didn't understand to what level Winthrop had risen under Marshall. Some have called this a new era of Winthrop basketball. Had Peele come from East Podunk U. to replace the winningest coach in Winthrop history, the question would have more validity. Start of a new era, in some ways, says the program was stumbling, needed a new beginning.

Peele taking over is more the next step in the program than a new one, because he's been part of it, a major part. He knows the territory. More importantly, the players know him, because Marshall gave him the freedom to be a coach at practice time. That's why Friday's first practice didn't look a great deal different from the first day of practice the past four years.

If anything, it was a little quieter. Marshall could drop verbal bombs that would make Bob Knight proud. Peele rarely raised his voice other than to make a point, to make sure what he was saying was heard. It will be that way for a while, but in time, after the young players have had some time to listen and learn, Peele will demand more.

And with seven players who've never played an NCAA Division I game, he's going to have plenty to say, just as Marshall would have if he were still around. If anything, Friday's practice showed how far the Eagles have to go in the preseason. The newcomers at times looked lost. For some, it's apparent they've haven't been taught enough of the fundamentals of the game -- foot work, body position.

Peele was asked if he was surprised at how much his new players didn't know.

"No," he said. "And the biggest thing they don't know is how hard they have to work. Really work at listening, too."

But in watching that first workout, it's evident Peele has plenty to work with, that the potential for improvement for this team over the course of the year might be higher than it's ever been for the Eagles. They have talent, athleticism, quickness and potential for outstanding depth.

Peele has a solid core of veterans in seniors Chris Gaynor, Michael Jenkins, Taj McCullough and Antwon Harris. Mantoris Robinson, Byron Faison and Jonathan Rice have been there, too. They've all got to be coaches for the young guys. They'll have to have some patience, too, while the newcomers catch on to the system.

As he left practice Friday, Harris, doing what a senior should, told Peele that Charles Corbin's locker was right next to his and that he was doing all he could to help the 6-7 freshman.

And at the end of practice, Gaynor called the team together and told the young guys "this is just the first practice. Don't get down on yourself."

As the clock ticked close to 10 p.m., freshman Marc-David Vil, a 6-4 combo guard with a big upside, was still in the gym, taking passes from assistant coach Paul Molinari, getting up jumper after jumper. It left Peele smiling.

There have already been a couple of bumps in the road. Robinson sprained an ankle two weeks ago and isn't back. Freshman point guard Justin Burton had knee surgery two weeks ago and may be out another two weeks. That leaves Peele with just 12 players and not one of them got a break Friday night. Even assistant coach Larry Dixon was pressed into service for a couple of drills.

But through it all, it was clear the man in charge is Peele, and he was all over the floor. When it was over, he was sweating as much as the players. His effort left you wondering if he could make it through a season at that kind of pace.

"It's no different to me," he said.

But one thing is officially different now.

"The biggest thing is now I'm responsible," he said. "Mine is the voice that has to be heard."