We're ready to go

Winthrop coach Randy Peele and his players are ready to take on the Big South Conference this season.
Winthrop coach Randy Peele and his players are ready to take on the Big South Conference this season.

The season of change that had to come finally arrived for Winthrop's basketball program in April, when coach Gregg Marshall took the job at Wichita State and ended a remarkable nine-year run of success.

The program rolled up a school-record 194 wins, seven Big South titles, seven NCAA tournament trips, an NCAA win last March and a No. 23 ranking in the final AP poll.

Attendance and community interest increased along the way. Winthrop basketball became a nationally known product.

But Marshall's departure doesn't mean the program is headed back to the days of being a Big South Conference also-ran, nor does it mean the Eagles are ready to relinquish the stranglehold they've had on the conference in winning the past three league championships.

It means the program will be run by a new guy -- Randy Peele -- who for the past four seasons was Marshall's top assistant coach and chief recruiter. That Peele was around when the Eagles ran off a 95-31 record, including 42-4 against the Big South, the past four seasons isn't just coincidence. He's had a hand in the success and understands what's necessary to keep it going.

Marshall's gone, but the basic principles remain, including an emphasis on hard-nosed defense, not making mistakes, discipline, hard work and recruiting players at least a cut above what the Big South normally gets.

Peele also understands the nature of the change and what's ahead.

When he met with the media this past Thursday night, Peele, who got the job on the same day Marshall announced he was headed to Wichita, was quick to point out just how much transition the program faces in the next two seasons.

"We've got six new players this year, and next year we'll have five," Peele said. "Over this year and the next, we're going to turn the roster around."

That doesn't mean he's ready to turn over the first-place trophy to someone else.

While the league's preseason poll anointed High Point as the team to beat, the vote wasn't exactly overwhelming. The Panthers got one more first place vote, 15, and two total points more than the Eagles.

"This team has a tremendous amount of potential," Peele said, "and without question is capable of winning the league title."

Right now, the Eagles aren't thinking about polls, perhaps because they understand that while they might not be picked No. 1, they're still the team that everyone loves to beat.

"That says it all in itself," Chris Gaynor said when asked about being picked second. "We really don't get caught up in the preseason picks. It doesn't mean anything until you step on the court. They've got a great team, we've got a great team. It's going to be a battle just like it's been every year. If we can get our stuff together, we'll be all right."

It will take a bit more work to get that stuff together.

The Eagles also lost Torrell Martin, Craig Bradshaw and Philip Williams, arguably three of the top 10 or 15 players to ever pull on a pair of sneakers in league history. They take with them 44 percent of last year's points, 42 percent of the rebounds, 42 percent of shots taken and 40 percent of the free throws attempted.

With that nucleus, the Eagles went 79-19 the last three seasons, including a stunning 46-1 at home. Last year they went 17-0 against the league, counting the tournament, to become the first team to ever run the table.

With those losses, Peele has to figure there are plenty of teams in the Big South tripping over themselves to get a shot at the Eagles.

"Nobody knows better than I do what we face," Peele said. "We created this monster."

A good bit of that "monster" is back, led by senior guards Gaynor and Michael Jenkins, perhaps the best backcourt in the league. Senior Taj McCullough, who was the league's best sixth man last year, will step in at power forward, and senior Antwon Harris, who came off the bench but played a key role, should start and share time with sophomore Mantoris Robinson, another key reserve last year, at small forward.

Those are five veteran players who also understand how to a win a championship.

Peele says the seniors will take on more responsibility while slightly changing their roles. Gaynor has to score more. Jenkins, who will be the focus of opposing defenses at least in the early going, must create more shots by getting open when he doesn't have the ball. The 6-7, athletic McCullough, who could have a breakout season, has to score, but more importantly, has to rebound. Harris has to play within himself, getting on the boards and playing defense.

"There is a direct correlation between how your seniors play and your success," Peele said. "If you get good play and leadership out of your seniors, the chances are you'll have a pretty good team."

Peele says how his seniors respond, above all else, is the key to this season and whether the Eagles maintain their hold on the top spot.

Right now, those seniors have to be patient while freshmen Marc-David Vil, Justin Burton, Chris Malcolm, George Valentine and Charles Corbin and junior college transfer Andy Buechert struggle with learning a complicated system and what it means to "play hard" every day. And Byron Faison, who redshirted last year but practiced every day, hasn't played a college game, either.

"We have more young players," Jenkins said, "and they don't know what it takes to win on the road, to play a college game. Last year we had a veteran team and everyone knew what it took. We'd been there before."

Jenkins said the veterans, moreso than the coaches, have to have the patience to deal with the youth.

But Peele also thinks, because of that youth, the Eagles have the ability to show more improvement by the end of the season than any team in the Big South.

Malcolm, Valentine, both 6-7, and Corbin, 6-8, are athletic, and Corbin, at 226 pounds, could start at center. All will play.

Burton, a 5-11 point guard, has been slowed by a knee injury. Vil, a rangy 6-4, can play either guard and loves to defend. Faison can score, but needs to play better on the defensive end.

Buechert, a 6-8, 235-pound lefty, will battle Corbin for the starting center spot. He has some good low post moves, but hasn't yet figured out how hard he has to play and how tough he has to be.

While there is plenty of youth, this might also turn out to be Winthrop's deepest team ever.

Peele thinks it has the makings of a good team, but knows it also has more question marks than any Winthrop team since, perhaps, Marshall's first team in 1998.

"I'm a guy who only looks to today," Peele said. "Last year that team went into the season knowing what was ahead. The theme was 'unfinished business,' and they what knew the consequences would be if they lost. They could handle that.

"This year, we're just taking the time to get better."

Meanwhile, the rest of the Big South sees the Eagles dropping back a step or two, that the race for the championship is as wide open as it's ever been.

"We'll see," Peele said.

• Today: Winthrop/Big South

• Monday: South Carolina/SEC

• Tuesday: Clemson/ACC

• Wednesday: Winthrop Women/Big South

• Thursday: Randy Peele profile

• Winthrop roster, schedule • 5D

• Big South preview • 4D