Eagles look to improve at Paradise Jam

With a young team a little more than a month into the season, you can understand why Winthrop coach Randy Peele may be developing a few more worry wrinkles as the Eagles go into today's opening game of the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands.

The Eagles (1-0) play Illinois-Chicago (2-0) at 3:30 p.m. The Flames are bigger and better than the Eagles' first opponent, Queens, and have the ability to attack the things the Eagles didn't so well in the first game, namely defend the dribble and rebound.

"They can drive the ball and rebound, and that's where we've got to get better," Peele said. "We've got to stop dribble penetration, rebound and take care of the ball."

That should be enough to worry about.

But while Peele hasn't been looking beyond the Flames, he has pondered the big picture. These could be three important games for the Eagles in terms of building confidence and momentum for a non-conference schedule that doesn't get easier.

"I'm concerned," he said, "because of the quality of the field. We were there before (2004) and the difference in the field is like night and day."

The Eagles went 2-1 that year, finishing third by beating Troy and Austin Peay. They lost to eventual champion Arkansas in the opening round but used the tournament performance to jumpstart a 27-6 season.

"We came out of that with a real emotional high," Peele said, "and felt really good about ourselves."

A similar or better performance this time would be cause for celebration, too, because the field includes Charlotte, Georgia Tech, Baylor, Wichita State, Monmouth and Notre Dame.

If the Eagles win today, they face the Charlotte-Georgia Tech winner in the semifinals Sunday. The losers of those games meet Saturday.

"We feel some pressure to win that first game," Peele said. "All we've talked about is Illinois-Chicago."

Peele has mostly told his players not to be fooled by the Flames' 14-18 record from last season, because for coach Jimmie Collins and his team, last season was anything but normal.

Collins called last year "a perfect storm of negativity."

Just a handful of games into last season, Collins found himself losing weight. On Dec. 19, he blacked out during a game at Ole Miss and again two nights later at Penn.

Doctors found an aortic aneurysm in his abdomen. After undergoing surgery in January, Collins took a medical leave of absence for the rest of the season.

At one point, after three players left the team, the Flames were down to five scholarship players and two walk-ons.

While he was sidelined, Collins' younger brother died of a heart attack.

Collins briefly thought about not coming back this season, but felt he couldn't walk away from a team that battled just to finish close to .500. The Flames are picked to finish fifth in the Horizon League.

The Flames are off to a 2-0 start, behind 5-foot-11 guard Josh Mayo and 7-foot center Scott VanderMeer, the two players who have garnered the most attention in Winthrop's preparation for this afternoon.

"Mayo is a very good combo guard," Peele said. "He has great speed and can really score. And they have the 7-footer. What they're going to try and do is drive by us, throw it up on the glass and if it doesn't go in, go get it again.

"They're going to be tough kids who'll get after us."

Mayo, who is shooting 61 percent (60 percent on 3-pointers), is averaging 23.5 points after two games. VanderMeer, who blocked a Horizon League record 111 shots last year, is averaging 13 points and four rebounds.

The Flames are shooting 53 percent, 59 percent from behind the arc, after beating Bradley and Illinois-Springfield at home. Bradley was picked to finish second in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Peele will be looking for a better effort at both ends of the floor from senior guard Michael Jenkins, some help off the bench for point guard Chris Gaynor from freshman Justin Burton and Marc-David Vil and more offense from small forward Mantoris Robinson.

Gaynor went 36 grueling minutes in the opener. Burton played four minutes, and Vil, still nursing a knee injury, did not play.

Peele liked what he saw from freshmen Charles Corbin and George Valentine and junior college transfer Andy Buechert in the post. They'll need a better performance against VanderMeer.

While Peele said he learned plenty about his team in the Queens game and is excited about the potential, he knows by next week he'll know a lot more.

"We're going to find out who we are," he said.