Win tonight would provide big boost heading into break

Winthrop coach Randy Peele isn't going to call any game in November or December a must-win situation. Those games come in March.

The November and December games are just the next ones he wants to win. And the next one comes at 7 p.m. today against Akron (5-1) in the final game before the Eagles take a few days off for semester final exams.

After tonight, they don't play again until going to Ole Miss a week from Thursday.

While tonight isn't a must-win deal, it would provide some momentum and confidence going into the break.

"It is big deal, yeah, because we just lost a game," Peele said.

And Peele, looking at what the schedule has been to this point and what's ahead, couldn't call any of these non-conference games must-wins if he wanted to. Where would he start separating one big game from another?

"It is a monster schedule," Peele said, "and the key thing is we've been tested, we've been exposed, we know who we are. That's going to make a difference down the road.

"I've just got to make sure I'm focused on the right things. Look at it. After we play Akron, we go to Ole Miss and then play Old Dominion. That's an unbelievable schedule after we've already played an unbelievable schedule."

The Eagles, after starting 3-0, have lost three of four. They're coming off a 70-53 loss at West Virginia, a game in which the Eagles found open shots hard to come by against a defense that denied every pass.

In their last home game, they lost 73-69 to Missouri State, a game they led by 20 points in the first half. It was their first loss at home in 25 games.

Tonight, the Eagles face a team that Peele said is "comparable to Missouri State, and one that might think it has something to prove, after getting a double snub last year."

Despite winning a school-record 26 games, finishing first in the East Division of the highly competitive Mid-American Conference, losing in the conference tournament finals on a last-second shot and ranking No. 68 in the RPI, the Zips didn't get an NCAA tournament bid.

The NIT didn't call, either.

After watching his team get pounded 96-71 Saturday, Wyoming coach Heath Schroyer cast an early vote for the Zips, telling the Akron Beacon Journal, "they are an NCAA tournament team. They are the best team we've played."

The Zips aren't big, but they play hard and get after it on defense. Four starters average in double figures, led by 6-foot-6, 235-pound senior forward Jeremiah Wood (15.8 points, 8.5 rebounds). Coach Keith Dambrot starts four seniors.

Much like West Virginia, the Zips try to deny open passes, meaning the Eagles have to find a way to execute in the halfcourt. And they have to take better shots, especially seniors Michael Jenkins and Taj McCullough, who were a combined 4-for-21 against West Virginia.

"We don't take good shots," Peele said after the West Virginia game, "but it's not because we have selfish players. We just don't get it yet."

Getting it means playing off the dribble and making good decisions.

"The bottom line," Peele said, "is we don't quite understand we've got to execute."

Peele said Monday there could be a lineup change tonight, with Antwon Harris moving in at small forward ahead of Mantoris Robinson.

Robinson has played very well defensively, but since scoring in double figures against Illnois-Chicago and Georgia Tech, the 6-5 sophomore has scored just 12 points in the past four games. He played just 13 minutes at West Virginia.

While the 6-3 Harris is prone to giving up as many points as he scores, he has had 25 points and 13 rebounds the past three games. He played 27 minutes at West Virginia and was aggressive enough to get to the foul line nine times.

Tonight's game is the last of a brutal four-game stretch against Missouri State, East Carolina, West Virginia and Akron. Peele was hoping for 4-0, would have felt good to go 3-1. With a win tonight, the Eagles would be a respectable, if not acceptable, 2-2.

"I told the guys Saturday that it's not acceptable to lose to West Virginia," Peele said, "but at the same time I understand we're getting better every game.

"(Tonight) is a big game, but fans shouldn't get down. I'm not down. I know who we've played, and the bottom line is, 'Where is your team?' We're going to continue to get better."

• Winthrop Gameday • 3C