For the first time in nine years, Winthrop University opens the basketball season with a new head coach, and some question just how good the Eagles will be after having a stranglehold on the Big South Conference.
Randy Peele, who will be coaching his first game as the man in the main seat for the first time since the 1996 season at UNC Greensboro, debuts tonight at 7 in the Winthrop Coliseum. He's excited, but understandably cautious, at least in the early going, with seven players who will be competing for the Eagles for the first time tonight.
"I almost feel like I've been too busy to be nervous, we've just been going hard," Peele said on Friday, while poring over a legal pad full of notes on tonight's opponent, Queens University of Charlotte, an NCAA Division II program with lots of wins in the last few years, including a 20-10 mark last season.
In April, Peele replaced Gregg Marshall, who guided the Eagles to seven Big South Conference titles in nine seasons and more wins than any coach in school history before taking the job at Wichita State. For the past four seasons, Peele has been sitting in the seat next to Marshall on the bench.
As Peele likes to say, he's "sliding over 18 inches" on the bench, a move that means he's calling the shots, and trying to figure how to keep winning without Torrell Martin, Craig Bradshaw and Phillip Williams, the foundation of the last three championship teams.
While he has senior guards Chris Gaynor and Michael Jenkins and senior front court players Taj McCullough and Antwon Harris back, Peele's got to work those newcomers in and hopes he finds a surprise or two among them. That, in a nutshell, is the task.
Whether the Eagles continue their winning ways with Peele will be determined in March, but in the meantime there are some things Peele won't be changing.
The emphasis remains on hard-nosed defense, discipline and mistake-free basketball. Most of all, he'll expect the Eagles to play hard, which was always the trademark of Marshall's teams and the way Peele has attacked the game as a player and coach.
"It's about us, about what we do," Peele said.
But a couple of individuals, McCullough being one of them, need to get off to good starts. Peele has been putting pressure on all the seniors to play hard and lead.
"I was challenged a couple of days ago by coach Peele," McCullough said during Thursday night's banquet when the team received its championship rings for last year's Big South title. "Coach didn't think I was working hard enough. I've made it my goal to work harder."
Peele has also challenged Jenkins, a first-team all-conference pick last season, to drive more and create more shots without the ball. He's pushed Gaynor to score more.
"When I evaluate myself, I think I can do better on the defensive end, too," Gaynor said, "but as long as I keep not turning the ball over and have us in a position to win the game at the end, that's all coach can ask of me."
Mostly, Peele has pushed everyone through the 26 practices they've had leading up to tonight's tip. It hasn't always been easy on the seniors who've had to take things slowly while the young guys catch on.
"We're so into a fast pace," said Jenkins, who thinks it's going to be important for the veterans to have a lot of patience. "They've still got a lot to learn. We're ready to keep moving, but we have to slow down."
While the Eagles have played scrimmages against Wofford and Chattanooga with pretty good results, tonight's game will be the first 40-minute test of what's been going on for the last month.
"I know what kind of practice coach I am and I think we teach the game the right way," Peele said, "but now it comes down to what you do on game day."
Peele has also pointed out to his players what's been happening around college basketball lately -- Michigan State's loss to Grand Valley State, Ohio State's loss to Findlay and Kentucky's stunning loss to Gardner-Webb, a team that will be joining the Big South.
"It's an inexperienced team playing and experienced Division II team, and anything can happen," he said. "Those games are a perfect example."
Queens brings a squad short on size (no player over 6-8), but long on experience, led by 6-3 senior guard Darnell Evans, 6-4 power forward John Thompson and 6-0 junior guard Andre Lockhart.
The Royals like to push the ball, attack off the dribble. Peele expects the pace to be up tempo, which will put more pressure on his young players, especially at the defensive end. In practice and scrimmages, the Eagles have had some problems scoring and that could compound the defensive worries.
"One of the things with an inexperienced team," Peele said, "is you ask them to focus defensively at a high level. It helps when they score. When they stop scoring, there is a tendency for the defensive intensity to drop. That's a concern."
One of many when you're the new coach.
"It's a weird feeling," Peele added, "because is this the beginning of a new era or is the continuation of the old one? I've been here four years. I know what the standard is. I also know it's about producing on the floor and winning games. That's the bottom line."
• AUDIO: In the first Winthrop Eagles Report, Gary McCann talks about the upcoming season and tonight's game against Queens
• VIDEO: View a video preview of the 2007-2008 Eagles.