CONCORD, N.C. -- A year ago, Winthrop's men's basketball team returned seniors Chris Gaynor, Michael Jenkins, Taj McCullough and Antwon Harris, had a solid recruiting class coming in and was coming off a 29-5 season and the program's first NCAA tournament win.
The Eagles' reward was being picked No. 2 in the Big South Conference preseason poll.
Winthrop tied for the regular-season title, won the conference tournament and reached the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year.
This year, second-year coach Randy Peele has two starters back, neither of whom averaged more than seven points on a 22-12 team. He lost Gaynor, a four-year starter and the winningest point guard in league history, and Jenkins, the BSC tournament MVP. Andy Buechert, a 6-9 center, was lost for the year with a knee injury. Peele will have 10 players who are freshmen or sophomores, plus a junior college transfer.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
So, logically, when the Big South revealed its 2008-2009 preseason poll on Tuesday at its annual media day luncheon, the Eagles were -- you guessed it -- picked No. 1.
Peele diplomatically called it "a great opportunity" and said he was "very honored."
But he had also prepared his staff for that possibility and told them "not to drink the poison." He plans to tell his players the same thing when they hold their first practice Thursday afternoon.
"We've lost seven seniors the past two years, and all of them are playing professionally," Peele said. "We have 18.3 points per game returning.
"What this (the No. 1 pick) is about is a culmination of what the program has done the past 10 years. Because we've been the dominant team in the league, people say, 'We're going to pick them until somebody beats them.'"
The Eagles weren't the overwhelming choice they've been in other years, getting nine first-place votes and 202 total points. They were picked as low as sixth on one ballot. They edged No. 2 Radford, which returns all five starters and picked up seven first-place votes, by 13 points.
Perhaps signaling what kind of year it could be in the Big South, seven teams received at least one first-place vote.
Second-year Liberty coach Ritchie McKay probably summed up the feelings of some voters, saying Winthrop's edge is in the winning attitude the program has cultivated.
"They're the Goliath of the league," McKay said.
The Eagles might have been picked No. 1, but the preseason all-conference team didn't have a single Eagle on it. Liberty senior Anthony Smith was voted preseason player of the year and was joined on the team by VMI's Chavis Holmes, Radford's Joey Lynch-Flohr, Charleston Southern's Omar Carter and Gardner-Webb's Grayson Flittner.
Peele joked that next year he wanted Big South commissioner Kyle Kallander to make a rule that "you have to have at least one player" appear in the preseason all-conference video clips in order to be voted No. 1.
The last time the Eagles didn't have a player picked on the preseason all-BSC team was 2004-2005. They were picked fourth in the poll, but won the conference.
While the Eagles may have the No. 1 bull's-eye, all the coaches in the now 10-team league think this could be the most balanced conference race in some time. Gardner-Webb, which joins the league this year, returns a veteran team, as does Radford, Charleston Southern and VMI. High Point, Liberty, Coastal Carolina, UNC Asheville and Winthrop mix some veterans with outstanding recruiting classes.
Presbyterian, which is eligible for the regular-season championship but can't participate in the league tournament, was voted last by a wide margin, but few of the league's coaches relish the idea of playing a team that returns four starters.
"I still think Winthrop is the team to beat," CSU coach Barclay Radebaugh said, "because of their tradition and the fact they have a swagger about them. But it's also more wide-open because of the number of seniors the league lost."
Of the 10 players named to last year's all-conference first and second teams, eight were seniors. Smith did not make either team, while Holmes was on second team. UNCA's Kenny George was a second-team pick, but he's out for the season following foot surgery.
"The league did lose a lot of good players," McKay said, "but there will be others waiting to step up."
That's what Peele will be looking forward to when practice starts. He said he probably won't use the preseason poll as motivation, but his players might be a little steamed by the fact none of them made the preseason all-conference team.
"We're going to have competition at every position," Peele said, "so my biggest concern is how we're going to play them. We have so many different combinations.
"We've got a lot of young guys who have a chance to be very good."