With UNCA in control, Eagles should embrace underdog role

Here's the reality for Winthrop's basketball team.

Barring a spectacular lose-three-or-four-out-of-the-last-seven collapse by UNC Asheville, the three-time defending Big South Conference champions, who have owned the league for three years, aren't going to win the regular-season championship.

That door all but slammed shut on Wednesday, when they couldn't close the deal at Coastal Carolina and lost 50-49 to a team they had beaten by 22 less than two weeks ago.

A year ago, they walked off the same floor at Kimbel Arena the first team in Big South history to go unbeaten in the regular season.

Now, at 5-3, they are tied with High Point for second place, three games behind UNCA, which is 7-0 and plays at Liberty on Saturday.

Before losing at Coastal, the Eagles still had a good shot at closing the gap, because UNCA could very well lose to the Flames. Had Winthrop beaten Coastal and UNCA dropped its first game, that would have meant a one-game difference in the standings. And that would have been much easier to overcome than a three-game hole with six games to play.

The way the Bulldogs are playing and with three games left at home, it's not likely they're going to fold.

So, here's one man's opinion of what the Eagles need to do.

Coaches are fond of breaking their schedules into segments. There's the non-conference portion. Then comes conference play. Then comes postseason. And within each of those, particularly the conference seasons, there are always groups of games coaches point to and at least think, if they don't say it openly, about what they need to do.

After getting to 4-1 in the league, Winthrop faced a five-game stretch that included four road games. It was, even to the casual observer, the key stretch in the regular-season race.

Three games into that run, the Eagles have gone 1-2, losing twice on the road, and their shot at a regular-season title is gone.

With High Point coming to the Winthrop Coliseum on Saturday and a road trip to Liberty on Tuesday, the Eagles, by next week, could be facing the prospect of just trying to finish among the top four in the standings, which would at least assure a home game in the first round of the league tournament.

At 14-9, the Eagles already have lost more regular-season games than in the past three seasons.

This regular season isn't going to be like the last three, but that doesn't mean the postseason should be any different.

The Eagles have been in the sights of every team in the conference, because every team understood the Eagles lost a ton of talent and experience and intensity with the graduation of Torrell Martin, Craig Bradshaw and Phillip Williams and the death of De'Andre Adams. If you want to call it payback, perhaps that's the correct term.

But no one in the Big South is going to throw a pity party for the Eagles. They're just going to try and hammer them if they can. The fans in Asheville and Conway and High Point are loving it.

So, the Eagles have six league games and that BracketBuster home game against Davidson remaining before the conference tournament. That's seven games to get ready for the three games that matter. The Big South is and always will be a one-bid league when it comes to the NCAA tournament, so those three games are what the Eagles should start thinking about right now.

Hey, the pressure's off. The Eagles can become the hunters, not the hunted. They're underdogs now, not the big dogs.

If anything, that loss at Coastal Carolina paints the picture of the reality. The Eagles are playing for second, a home game in the first round of the tournament and a chance to go to Asheville and win at least one game, maybe two, on a neutral court to go back to the NCAAs.

If things really fall for them, they could finish second, host that first game, play the second in Asheville and, if the Bulldogs get knocked off before the finals, still be in line to host the championship game.

From here to the end of the regular season, they should be a relaxed group. They should be able to take open shots without worrying about the consequences. They should be able to take chances on defense, apply some pressure and play a loose and freewheeling style.

At Coastal, they looked tight, particularly at the end of the game, and some guys who needed to take open shots failed to pull the trigger. And some guys who took open shots needed to pass the ball.

The past three seasons, the Eagles weren't afraid to take a shot. And that was everybody. Martin and Bradshaw hit big shots, but so did the unheralded Williams and Adams -- not to mention Michael Jenkins, Chris Gaynor, Taj McCullough and Antwon Harris, this year's seniors.

The Eagles need to stop thinking so much and start playing.

If there's a good thing about this week, it's the way the schedule falls. With High Point coming in, the Eagles should be able to quickly regain their focus. After all, it was the Panthers who beat the Eagles in the conference opener and held an on-court celebration worthy of winning the league title.

When the Chanticleers won two nights ago, the fans stormed the court and held another celebration like Coastal had won a title, too.

The title will be decided the first Saturday in March.

The Eagles should circle the date.