Eagles sitting pretty as BSC season starts to wrap up

Take one look at the Big South Conference standings and you can see, with two weeks left in the regular-season race, not much has been decided.

Six teams are still within wishing distance of first place, the middle of the standings is so tight it would make a sardine cringe and the teams at the bottom are starting to make some noise.

Here's what's certain.

Radford (3-7) and Charleston Southern (3-8), the two teams at the bottom, can't finish first, so they don't have to make plans to host the conference tournament semifinals or finals.

Not much else is clear.

The two teams at the top -- Winthrop and UNC Asheville -- at least have a very good idea of what they have to do to stay there and perhaps claim that all-important No. 1 seed for the Big South tournament, which begins on March 4.

The Eagles (17-9, 8-3) hold a half-game lead over the Bulldogs (18-7, 7-3). Winthrop has three games remaining, starting tonight at VMI (13-11, 5-5). UNC Asheville has four games left, beginning with a trip to Radford (8-17, 3-7) tonight.

Winthrop can turn it into a two-team race with a win tonight. That would give the Eagles nine wins. The only other team with a chance to get to nine is UNCA.

Meanwhile, High Point, Liberty and Coastal Carolina are tied for third at 6-6, just a game ahead of VMI, and all need the Eagles and Bulldogs to fall flat on their faces down the stretch to have a shot at first.

But if Liberty, Coastal and High Point finish in any kind of dead heat, Liberty, which went 3-1 against the other two, holds the tiebreaker. Coastal went 2-2 and High Point 1-3.

VMI, which is 2-2 against those teams with two wins over Coastal and has games against Liberty and High Point remaining, could make the biggest move. If the Keydets sweep their four remaining games, they can get to nine wins.

Finishing in the top four is important, because those teams get home games in the first round of the league tournament.

The regular-season winner could host every game it plays in the conference tournament, something Winthrop has enjoyed the past three seasons.

But unlike the past three seasons when the Eagles were clearly the class of the league, this race for No. 1 could literally come down to the last shot of the last regular-season game.

In the last week or so, a lot of puzzle pieces have fallen into place for Winthrop, which was three games behind Asheville after a loss at Coastal Carolina on Feb. 6.

Asheville, suffering injuries to guard Bryan Smithson and center Kenny George, lost three straight, while the Eagles have won three in a row. Winthrop won a key road game at Liberty to sweep that season series and gain the edge in any tiebreaker that might involve the Flames, who split with Asheville.

And over the last few days, Liberty, High Point and Coastal have all lost key games to all but fall out of the race for first place.

With two of their last three games at home, including the regular-season finale against UNCA, Winthrop, coach Randy Peele said, "is in the catbird seat right now."

But the Eagles don't need to sit back and put their feet up. The catbird seat isn't that comfortable, with three games to play.

"All kinds of intangibles go into this," Peele said. "The team that wins the (conference) tournament is usually the one that goes into it playing the best. That's what we're trying to do."

The VMI team Winthrop plays tonight isn't the same one they pummeled 85-41 on Jan. 23. Reggie Williams, who averages better than 27 points a game, didn't play that night after suffering a leg injury. The Keydets lost four straight without him. Williams came back three games ago, and the Keydets have won them all, including a 97-75 rout of Asheville on the road on Feb. 16.

Peele loves to be in control of games, calling offensive sets and changing defenses. VMI just plays, trying to force opponents into quick shots or better yet -- bad quick shots -- and turnovers.

Peele worries that his team could fall into the trap of taking too many 3-pointers instead of making a couple more passes and getting something better.

"This is a player's game," Peele said, "and I don't like those kinds of games at all.

"With Reggie, they are very different. He can dominate games. And they're more confident. That's the difference. You go to UNC Asheville and win by 22, that says it all."

The Eagles continue to win with defense, holding seven conference opponents to fewer than 60 points. They lead the Big South in scoring defense (54.6), field goal percentage defense (.388) and rebounding margin (plus-5.9) and are third in 3-point field goal percentage (.328). Those numbers have allowed them to overcome some inconsistent offensive play and pitiful free throw shooting (.583) to get back into the league race.

The key down the stretch, Peele said, is not getting ahead of yourself.

"That's the message," he said. "Two weeks from now, how good will we be? That's the theme for all of us."

• Winthrop (17-9, 8-3 Big South) at VMI (13-11, 5-5)

• When: 7 p.m.

• Where: Cameron Hall, Lexington, Va.

• TV: None

• Radio: WRHI (1340 AM, 94.3 FM), 6:30 p.m.

• Tickets: Available