Everyday's a day to learn for Eagles' basketball team

Winthrop men's basketball coach Randy Peele begins practice Thursday at Winthrop in the West Center.
Winthrop men's basketball coach Randy Peele begins practice Thursday at Winthrop in the West Center.

There is a story -- and it's true -- about legendary coach John Wooden and his attention to detail.

Wooden, who won an unprecedented 10 NCAA championships, perfected the art, right down to his players' feet. He literally built his teams from the feet up.

Each season, he had his players' feet measured. He never relied on some kid telling him he wore size 13 Chucks, not even Walton or Alcindor or Hazzard or Goodrich or Wicks or Rowe.

He measured the player's feet, both of them. He showed them how to correctly put on their socks to avoid blisters. He showed them how to lace and tie their sneakers. He didn't want laces coming undone at the wrong moment.

Attention to detail, he believed, would prevent problems. He applied that rule to everything, and with 10 trophies in the case at Pauley Pavilion, who could argue?

Randy Peele -- by the time you read this, four practices into his second season as head coach at Winthrop -- hasn't gone that far. The Eagles have their new Nikes, not to mention new practice gear and basketballs.

But as he walked out of the West Center around 9 p.m. Friday and into a cool drizzle, the thought crossed his mind. His team had just finished its second practice. It had been better than the first two-hour workout late Thursday afternoon.

"I feel like we're having to show them how to put on their shoes and lace 'em up," he said. Reminded that Wooden did just that, he smiled.

"Yeah," Peele said, "that's old school."

And school is where this basketball season is starting for the young Eagles, who Peele quickly admitted after Thursday's first workout "have a long way to go." Unlike the past four seasons, when there were four, five, six veterans players around to show the young kids the ropes, Peele's second team is the basketball equivalent of pre-school.

One grad student, one senior, two juniors (including one walk-on), one junior college transfer and eight players who are either freshmen or sophomores.

There's a lot to learn, a lot of teaching to be done before they open the season at home Nov. 14 against North Greenville.

"We're going to have to take it a lot slower," Peele said.

Thursday's first practice was a prime example. Peele had four things on his practice plan he never got to. He had to explain even the simplest of drills to make sure everyone got them right.

And he sent a quick message.

"When I'm talking to you," he said, "look at me with your eyes. If you're not doing that, it means you're not listening, and I have a hard time playing guys who don't listen."

Friday's second practice was almost three hours, and it was better than Thursday's.

It wasn't surprising that the bulk of those first two practices was spent working on defense. The young guys will quickly find that the better they played on defense, the better their chance of playing. But understanding the concepts of getting in the gaps, having good foot work, putting a body on a player and forearm in someone's chest when they block out is still foreign. Peele's newcomers were either the best player in their high school program or close to it, and they've been accustomed to beating people with their ability, not their technique or basketball IQ.

They could use a little toughness, too. Right now, they don't like contact, don't like getting after it in rebounding drills, don't care too much for a defender climbing into their grill.

But Peele thinks they'll learn.

The early practices showed this team needs to find some shooters, needs to figure out who the leaders are going to be.

They also showed there's potential for this team to be good. It's an athletic group. It has quickness and depth, if not great size. You see the young players and already think about how good they'll be next year and the one after that.

Peele thinks they could be good this year, too.

"This team," he said, "might have more potential to improve as the season goes along than any other team in the league."

He likes that idea.

And he likes the interchangeable parts.

When the Eagles lined up along the baseline before the first practice, it was hard to tell them apart. Aside from Matt Morgan, the 6-9 transfer who's sitting out this season, and 5-10 point guard Justin Burton, there wasn't much difference in size. There were a lot of guys in the 6-2 to 6-7 range.

The trick is finding who plays where in a complicated system. With Peele's system, it's hard for a player to play more than one position. But he could be at least two-deep at all five spots.

"We've got a lot of parts," Peele said, but he wouldn't venture a guess as to how long it would be before he'd have any idea what his player rotation might be.

"That's what we've got to figure out," he said.

One thing he didn't spend a lot of time on was the Big South Conference preseason poll that came out this week. The Eagles, who have won four straight titles, were picked first despite not having a single player picked on the preseason all-conference team.

"Preseason polls and a dime will get you cup of coffee," he said, although it might take more than a dime. "Don't believe any of that stuff."

He talked about what had to happen.

"This," he said, talking about practice, "is where we build our foundation."

Peele hasn't had to show anyone how to tie their shoes, but he's started building this team from the ground up.