Sports

Eagles waiting, and also hoping

In the days leading up to NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday last March, there was some mystery and a lot of talk about Winthrop.

The Eagles finished the regular season 28-4, went 17-0 against the Big South and won their last 18 games.

Every time you turned on SportsCenter, some expert was saying the one team you might not want to play in the first round was the Eagles.

In the run up to Selection Sunday, Winthrop's coaches, players and fans were wondering who they'd play and where. For the first time in the program's history, the chance for a good seed and a beatable first-round opponent were there. Winthrop had never been better than a No. 14 seed.

Coach Gregg Marshall, who studied the RPI and strength of schedule and who'd beaten whom about as much as ESPN's Joe Lunardi, thought the Eagles could be anywhere from a No. 6 to a No. 11. He said he'd scream bloody murder if they were a 12. He was hoping for something better than the No. 11 they received, but once he saw the opponent, Notre Dame, felt pretty good.

We all know what happened.

Last March, Winthrop beat No. 6 Notre Dame 74-64 in the first round of the Midwest Regional. That was one of just three upsets in the entire tournament. No. 11 VCU knocked off No. 6 Duke in the first round and No. 7 UNLV beat No. 2 Wisconsin in the second. The three upsets were the fewest since the 1979 and 1980 tournaments, which also saw three.

And that brings us to today.

Some time around 6 p.m., the Eagles will find out who they play and where. But unlike last year, the window of possibilities isn't nearly as wide. Their 22-11 record isn't as gaudy as last year's, they tied for the Big South regular-season title. The end-of-season winning streak is a modest three, although they did win eight of their last 10.

A peek at the Internet predictions the past few days had the Eagles in the 14-15 slot, with most leaning toward a 15, and one even had the Eagles a No. 16.

Coach Randy Peele, in his first year of having to really worry about seeds and sites, said he'd "do flips down Main Street" if the Eagles were a 13. Not going to happen.

He might want to consider flips if the Eagles are a 14.

He'd rather not be a 15 or a 16.

"I think a 14 would be fair," he said a couple of days ago.

Going into the tournament as a No. 16 or 15 seed is an almost guaranteed one-and-done. No. 1 seeds are 92-0 vs. No. 16 and No. 2 seeds are 88-4 against No. 15. A No. 15 seed hasn't scored an upset since 2001.

That's why squeezing into that No. 14 slot looks so much better. No. 14s have gone 15-77 against No. 3s, certainly a long shot, but better odds than facing a No. 1 or No. 2.

One day last week, Peele sat in his office trying to figure out what might happen. This was at the end of a long week that, up to that point, had included 12 radio interviews with stations in Seattle, Birmingham, Phoenix, Jacksonville, Raleigh and Charlotte, plus a talk at an Eagle Club meeting.

You could forgive him if things were starting to run together.

"About the only thing we know," he said, "is we're going to play someone really, really good. We're probably talking about playing a team ranked in the top 15, a team that may have perhaps three NBA prospects.

"But, you know, I can't worry about it. It would be different if you had some control over it."

The more Peele thought about it, the more he felt there were a couple of scenarios with his team. He was thinking the Eagles would be a 14 or a 15 seed.

He thought there was a chance they could be rated the best of the 15 seeds, which means they'd likely draw the lowest ranked of the No. 2 seeds. Now, that might sound great, but you're probably talking about the difference between playing Georgetown or playing Duke. Pick the least deadly of that poison.

There's also the chance they could be the lowest rated of the No. 14 seeds, which probably means they'd get the best of the No. 3 seeds. If you go by the top 25 polls, that would be someone like Xavier, Vanderbilt, Louisville or Drake. No walk in the park there, but Peele would certainly rather take a shot at one of those teams.

The Eagles have a pretty good case to be a No. 14.

They are 6-6 against teams in the top 150 of the RPI, 3-4 against the top 100 and 1-4 against the top 50, a pretty good record for a team from the Big South Conference. They have wins over Miami and Georgia Tech on neutral courts. They went 8-2 in their final 10 games.

Stack those numbers against some of the other teams hoping to get a 14 seed and the Eagles look pretty good.

By the time Peele, who was never one to pay much attention to the bracketology until he became a head coach again, got through with his analysis, he was feeling pretty good.

"I got faith," he said. "A 14, Xavier."

That afternoon at practice, he went over some things with his team.

"We won't be a 13," he said. "If we played today, we'd probably be a 15."

He went down the list of who the Eagles could play -- Duke, Georgetown, Kansas, Texas, UCLA. Then he mentioned things weren't decided, that upsets in other leagues like the Big South could push the Eagles up the list.

"Either way," he said, "it's a great opportunity for us."

Then he added one more thing that was just like last year.

"We're working to advance," he said. "We've matured past the point where we're just glad to be here."

Whatever number comes up next to their name today.

Winthrop in the NCAAs

Year Seed Opponent Result

1999 16 No. 1 Auburn L 80-41

2000 14 No. 3 Oklahoma L 74-50

2001 Play-in Northwestern St. L 71-67

2002 16 No. 1 Duke L 84-37

2005 14 No. 3 Gonzaga L 74-64

2006 15 No. 2 Tennessee L 63-61

2007 11 No. 6 Notre Dame W 74-64

No. 3 Oregon L 75-61

2008 ? ? ?

  Comments