Sports

Young, talented Eagles prep for season

The pace in the Winthrop men's basketball office this past week wasn't as hectic as those 24-7 jobs in February, but it wasn't as quiet as you might think, either.

Coach Randy Peele was busy trying to nail down details on coming summer camps, making plans for the July recruiting period, putting the finishing touches on next year's schedule, and trying to find one last player to fill out the recruiting class for the coming season.

I stopped by long enough to let Peele know that ESPN.com's first bracketology for the 2008-09 season is out. The Eagles aren't on Joe Lunardi's list. Lunardi has UNC Asheville a No. 15 seed playing Notre Dame in the opening round next March.

Peele just smiled, probably remembering when Lunardi had the Bulldogs, who tied Winthrop for the regular-season title, in the field last March, too. Didn't quite work out that way.

Peele chuckled, knowing bracketology can be blown to bits by, say, Michael Jenkins going off for 33 points in the conference tournament finals.

"We like being the underdog," Peele said, smiling, and suggesting he might pick his team fourth or fifth in next year's preseason poll.

The season is still months away for the Eagles, who have won four straight and eight of the past 10 Big South Conference titles. But the work's already started.

Just about every player who'll be around when practice starts in October was in town last week hitting the books, the weights, doing individual work and playing pick-up games. Most expect to be around all summer.

Incoming freshmen Reggie Middleton, Andre Jones and Gideon Gamble and junior college transfer Raymond Davis were getting their first taste of what the battle will be like for playing time next season. They're testing themselves in afternoon pick-up games.

A look at one of those games last week revealed a Byron Faison who looks stronger and quicker; a Mantoris Robinson who may be more offensive-minded next season (working on that jumper); a Davis who could be an impact player, particularly on defense; a trimmed down Charles Corbin; a stronger-looking Chris Malcolm, who could be a factor, too.

Gamble, Middleton and Jones, going through freshman orientation, didn't play that day.

Chris Gaynor and Michael Jenkins were playing, too. Gaynor said the Eagles "have a lot of talent, a lot of talent." Faison said the same, and said the battles between sophomore Justin Burton and Middleton at the point have been fun to watch.

Faison repeated the young but talented line.

The Eagles' roster will include at least nine players who are freshmen or sophomores, and Peele continues to work to fill one remaining grant in aid, hopefully with a big man.

He's had a couple of recruiting disappointments. Ahayaro Phillips, a 6-8 forward, chose Nevada over Winthrop, and 6-9 Gabe Blair, who left East Carolina, first considered the Eagles before landing at Wichita State with former Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall.

This late in the year, good big men are hard to find, but Peele and his staff haven't stopped searching.

The roster will be tested by a schedule that could be finalized in the next few days. Once again, the Eagles will be playing an impressive list of opponents.

The Big South gets a new, full-fledged member this year -- Gardner-Webb, which moves over from the Atlantic Sun Conference -- and Presbyterian will play a full league schedule. Presbyterian's games will count in the standings, but the Blue Hose won't be eligible for the league title and NCAA tournament, adding an interesting twist to the season.

That's 18 games against a league that could be better top to bottom. While Peele joked he might pick his team in the middle of the pack, that could be where the Eagles wind up in the preseason polls.

With a young team, Peele could have elected to soften the non-conference schedule, but that's not Peele's way, nor has it been the way of the program in recent years. It's been a "bring 'em on" mentality.

You already know some of the road games -- Akron, Davidson, Charlotte, Old Dominion. Akron, Davidson and ODU are return games. Charlotte comes on for the first game in a three-year series Peele hopes becomes longer than that.

The Eagles will also return to the Orange Bowl Classic to play Florida. Last December, the Eagles went to the Sunshine State and rained on the parade of unbeaten and 12th-ranked Miami.

They'll play at N.C. State for the first time since 1998.

South Carolina is back on the schedule for a two-year deal. Peele mentioned the possibility of playing to new Gamecocks coach Darrin Horn while the two were recruiting in Houston. Horn called back and said let's do it. The teams last played in 2005. It's a two-year deal Peele hopes can be extended.

The home non-conference schedule isn't going to be as good as last year, but College of Charleston and coach Bobby Cremins will visit, along with East Carolina and North Greenville. Peele is hoping the Eagles land another home game in the ESPN BracketBuster series and is still working on one more game.

"The thing I'm excited about," he said, "is we've got Davidson, Charlotte, College of Charleston and South Carolina all in the same year. Those games are going to create a lot of interest for all the schools.

"I like playing a hard, demanding schedule. In the end, we'll be better because of it."

The schedule will be demanding and a shade on the scary side. It's the kind of schedule that can build confidence or beat it down. Peele thinks it will be the former.

Why?

"We're young," Peele said, "but we're talented."

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