Sports

What's in store?

Winthrop's Justin Burton makes a pass during the Big South Championship game on March 8. Burton is one of a handful of guards facing the daunting task of replacing Chris Gaynor and Michael Jenkins.
Winthrop's Justin Burton makes a pass during the Big South Championship game on March 8. Burton is one of a handful of guards facing the daunting task of replacing Chris Gaynor and Michael Jenkins.

For the past four seasons, there hasn't been much mystery with Winthrop basketball.

The Eagles expected to be good and compete for the Big South Conference championship. They won four straight titles, going 64-8 against the league and 101-30 overall. They played in four straight NCAA tournaments. Each year it was apparent who the stars would be and they produced.

But next year?

"There's no star next year," coach Randy Peele said. "Right now, you don't know who to talk about. No one has put up the kind of numbers that would make you say they'll have a great year.

"But, you know, it's exciting. I'm looking forward to it."

As young as the Eagles were this season, with seven new faces, Peele's team gets even younger next year. He'll bring in at least four true freshmen and at least one junior college transfer to go along with four sophomores and a redshirt freshman.

"Nine of our top 13 players," he said, "will be freshmen and sophomores. We're going to be really young, but we're also going to be really deep."

Here's a look at how the 2008-09 season shapes up.

Who's gone

The Eagles lose three starters -- point guard Chris Gaynor, shooting guard Michael Jenkins and forward Taj McCullough -- along with reserve forward Antwon Harris.

Gaynor, who started 128 games in four years, directed 99 wins and set school and Big South records for assists (567) and steals (259), is the hardest to replace. His grit and floor leadership will be missed most.

Jenkins led the team in scoring, and when on, was a devastating shooter. He'll be missed at the defensive end, too.

McCullough had a chance to redshirt as a freshman and should have. He could have been something as a fifth-year senior.

Harris struggled the last half of the year, after suffering a severe ankle sprain on Jan. 12.

Seniors have been the backbone of the program.

"This year we had three guys with NCAA experience," Peele said, "and when it came time to get it done (in the conference tournament), they got it done. We'll miss that."

Who's Back

Peele will have seven of this year's top 11 players back next season.

Mantoris Robinson, a 6-5 forward, and Charles Corbin, a 6-7 freshman who made the Big South all-freshman team, started.

Peele says Robinson is the best defender in the league. But Robinson has to score, especially with McCullough and Jenkins gone. He had six double-figure games, but also had 19 games with five or fewer points. If he adds some points to his defense, he could be a first-team all-league pick.

As an undersized five-man, Corbin needs to work on finishing shots, defending in the post and concentrating on every possession.

The only others who started a game were 6-9 junior center Andy Buechert (two) and 6-8 freshman forward George Valentine (two).

Buechert played better at the end of the year and junior college transfers usually improve their second year. He has a nice lefty jumphook and can be physical, but, like Corbin, needs to bring it every play.

"I think the light switch has come on for him," Peele said. "He could be one of the top post players in the league."

Valentine has a good basketball IQ, and despite an unorthodox shot, made 50 percent of his field goals. He also had 19 blocks and 18 steals and could be a defensive stopper.

Guards Justin Burton, Byron Faison and Marc-David Vil will get their shots at replacing Gaynor and Jenkins.

Burton, who is about the same size as Gaynor and plays with the same stone-faced concentration, got better as the year went along. His confidence should be high going into next year. He made 14-of-21 3-pointers and committed just five turnovers in his last 13 games.

Faison has the athleticism, quickness and shot to be a good scorer. He shot 42 percent from beyond the arc and could be a bigger factor there next year, when the 3-point line moves back a foot. It's on the other end where he must improve to take Jenkins' spot.

Vil played only 12 games, but the 6-3 Canadian has long arms and quickness and a good-looking shot. He had trouble handling the ball against pressure. He needs confidence to fight his way through the backcourt logjam and get playing time.

The wild-card returnee is 6-7 freshman forward Chris Malcolm. He redshirted this season, but went through every practice and learned the system. He has the wing span of a 7-footer, jumps well, can block shots and has a good perimeter shot. He's already put on about 15 pounds, up to 206.

"He's the X factor," Peele said.

The new faces

Peele signed three freshmen last fall, added a freshman walk-on and recently got a junior college commitment. He could add at least one more player.

He signed 6-2 shooting guard Andre Jones from Nansemond River High in Suffolk, Va., 6-1 point guard Reggie Middleton of Glenn Hills High in Augusta, Ga., and 6-7 shooting guard Gideon Gamble of Atlanta Westlake High.

Case Stiglbauer, a 6-9 center from Dreher High School in Columbia, comes in on an academic scholarship. He was rated one of the state's top prospects.

Last week, the Eagles got a commitment from Raymond Davis, a 6-4 junior college transfer from Northwest Shoals Community College in Alabama.

Middleton led Glenn Hills to the Class AAA state title and a 29-2 record. Middleton averaged 11.7 points and 6.1 assists and had 18 points, five assists and six rebounds in the championship game.

Jones led Nansemond River to its seventh straight Southeast Region title, but lost in the first round of the Group AAA state tournament. He was named first team All-Tidewater by The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot, after averaging 17.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists.

Gamble's team was ranked No. 1 in the state for most of year before losing in the state tournament semifinals and finishing 28-3. Gamble, who was named to the Georgia North-South All-Star Game, struggled with back problems before Christmas but averaged 14.5 points, eight rebounds and 5.5 assists after the first of the year. He could be the tallest guard ever at Winthrop.

Middleton, Jones, Gamble and Davis could challenge for starting spots, but at the very least will add something to practice that was missing this year -- competition for playing time. All can score.

"We've learned we've got to get bigger at every position and get guys who can score," Peele said. "I think we've done that.

"We want competition at every position."

The schedule

With Gardner-Webb joining the league next year, the Eagles add two more league games. They also play Presbyterian, which will become a full member of the league in a couple of years, twice.

That's 18 games against Big South teams. The first league games will be played in early December in order to keep the conference tournament in its same slot a week before the major conference tournaments.

Already on the non-conference schedule are games at Akron, Old Dominion, Davidson and Charlotte. The only home game so far is East Carolina. And the Eagles could be invited to the BracketBuster again, which would mean another road game.

The problem is getting home dates, plus playing two guarantee games to bring in some extra money.

"That's a pretty good schedule already," Peele said.

The Big South

The league loses 12 of its top 25 scorers, six of the top 20 rebounders, six of the top 12 shooters and eight of the top 15 assist leaders.

Eight of the 10 first- or second-team all-conference picks were seniors.

There won't be a clear-cut favorite.

"There are going to be a lot of teams in the same boat," Peele said, "a lot of teams starting over."

Radford, which made a late-season push, returns all five starters from a 10-20 team and could be the favorite.

Charleston Southern (10-20), VMI (14-15) and Gardner-Webb (16-16, Atlantic Sun) return four.

High Point (17-14) has three starters back but loses Arizona Reid and Mike Jefferson.

Coastal Carolina (13-15) loses Jack Leasure but has two starters back and will also have Joseph Harris returning from injury.

Liberty returns two starters, including potential player of the year Anthony Smith, but loses Alex McLean.

UNCA (23-9) took the biggest hit, losing four starters. Kenny George returns, but the Bulldogs lose their guards, K.J. Garland and Bryan Smithson.

With two starters back and lots of new faces, Winthrop might still be in the thick of the league race.

"I'm excited about the year," Peele said, "but at this point I don't know where to put the level of expectations."

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