Tough schedule will benefit young squad

Throughout the summer, as he was putting together his first schedule as basketball coach at Winthrop, Randy Peele was worried.

Was he over-scheduling his young team? Was the most ambitious home schedule in school history too much for a team with seven players who'd never played an NCAA Division I game?

He thought about it again late Sunday, after the Eagles lost a 22-point first-half lead and the game to Missouri State, 73-69. It was Winthrop's first home loss in 25 games and only the second in the past 49.

It was the first game of a brutal 10-day stretch that sees them playing at East Carolina on Wednesday, West Virginia on Saturday and back home against Akron a week from today.

And let's be honest. The fans who showed up Sunday -- and there weren't enough of them for such a game -- had to be shaking their heads at the end. Some of them were probably wondering, "What's wrong?"

Golly, the Eagles are 3-2 and they've lost two straight.

Before any of you Eagle fans go into panic mode and consider jumping off the screen monster out at the baseball field because Winthrop "is only" 3-2, consider this.

In six of the past nine seasons, including last year, the best season in school history, the Eagles went 3-2 in the first five games. In 2005 and 1999, they started 4-1 but lost game six. In 2001, they lost three of their first five.

Last year's 3-2 start came on wins against North Greenville (non-Division I), Iona (which went 2-28) and Mississippi State (a team the Eagles were clearly superior to), while the losses were to North Carolina by seven and Maryland by 11.

I contend this year's 3-2 start, given the Eagles lost Torrell Martin, Craig Bradshaw, Phillip Williams and De'Andre Adams, is better. The wins over Georgia Tech and Illinois-Chicago are certainly superior to beating Iona and Mississippi State. They lost to Baylor, which will make some waves in the Big 12, and to Missouri State, a team that pounded a good UNC Greensboro team and beat St. Louis before coming to Rock Hill.

So, the Eagles aren't exactly plowing new ground in this year's first five games. They are continuing the pattern that has helped the program become the best in the Big South. Former coach Gregg Marshall decided it was in the program's best interest competitively and monetarily to adopt almost a play-anyone-anywhere approach. By playing tough non-league games, the Eagles got tougher before league play began.

And Peele, despite his worries, is hoping -- expecting -- the same thing to happen. He wasn't ducking any challenges when he arranged this year's schedule.

Now, Peele and the Eagles want to win them all, but given the schedule, the youth and issues with the bench, that's not going to happen.

But the schedule and the potential for improvement with this team may outweigh what the record might be when league play starts in January. The schedule is already teaching him a lot about this team.

Here's what he knows it needs to deal with the schedule at hand.

Better effort on the defensive end, whether or not shots are falling at the other end. The Eagles missed a bunch of shots in the second half Sunday and let that affect their play on defense.

The bench has to get better. Byron Faison and Justin Burton have to handle the ball better. And Peele's got to find out what Marc-David Vil, who has not played a minute in a game, can do or decide to redshirt him. Andy Buechert, who sat out Sunday's game with ankle problems, has to get healthy.

Mantoris Robinson, a skilled defender, can't go 33 minutes without a point as he did against Missouri State. He's got to be as aggressive on the offensive end as he is on defense.

The Eagles can't play with foul trouble. That means they may have to play more zone, something Peele doesn't like but wishes he'd done more of Sunday.

The seniors -- Chris Gaynor, Michael Jenkins, Taj McCullough, Antwon Harris -- have to lead by example and be more vocal about it.

Peele, whose team is going to be a work in progress for some time, knows addressing all those issues isn't something that can be fixed in one or two practices, but he also knows it can be done.

As long as they're fixed by January.

When you play in the Big South, winning the league and, more importantly, the league tournament, are what matters.

How you're playing when league plays starts is most important, which means winning some of those non-league games supplies the momentum.

The Eagles have 10 non-league games remaining, including three before the December exam break. If the Eagles can win two of the next three, Peele will probably be more than happy.

He, more than anyone, understands what the Eagles are up against.

After all, he made the schedule.