On Monday, Winthrop basketball coach Randy Peele joked he'd like to fire the guy who made out this year's schedule. He wants to hand out the pink slip every time he looks in the mirror.
Another rugged schedule, courtesy the head coach, starts at 7 p.m. today in the Winthrop Coliseum, when the Eagles host North Greenville.
Now, the Crusaders, coming off a 7-20 season and having 10 new players and just one senior, aren't expected to be much of an obstacle for the Eagles, but it gets tougher in a hurry.
Winthrop goes to South Carolina for a 4 p.m. game on Sunday, hops a charter flight to Akron for a 7 p.m. game on Tuesday and makes the short drive north to take on nationally-ranked Davidson in a 7 p.m. game a week from tonight.
Four games in eight days for a Winthrop team that has seven new faces, and for the first time in what seems like forever, no seniors with experience. Eight of the first 11 games are on the road.
So, while the Eagles, 22-12 last year, will be overwhelming favorites tonight, Peele will be looking for the things that could make the next week a lot more enjoyable.
Defensive effort. Scoring. Taking care of the ball. Rebounding.
No matter who's on the court.
"The thing about this team," Peele said, "is you may see more different starting lineups than we've used the last three years combined. We could start a different lineup every game."
He predicts the Eagles could have "a couple of guys average in double figures and a lot of guys averaging between five and nine points."
Peele says he's comfortable with using a lot of players.
"I doesn't throw me off kilter at all," he said. "We (the coaches) just have to pay attention to who's playing well every day."
The competition in practice since the Eagles cranked things up Oct. 16 has been good, and Peele likes that. It means players coming to practice can't take a day off without the prospect of losing playing time. That tends to help keep the attention of those first-year players.
But Gideon Gamble, the 6-7 freshman from Atlanta, is one newcomer who will not play this season. Gamble has decided to redshirt this year.
"He has a chance to be absolutely special," Peele said, "and we didn't want to make the same mistake with him we made with Taj McCullough."
McCullough, who graduated last spring, was in the Washington Wizards camp this summer and was drafted by the National Basketball Developmental League last week. He considered redshirting as a freshman, but didn't and played just 78 minutes that year. He said as recently as last season he wished he had taken the redshirt year.
"Gideon is one of our most skilled players," Peele said, "and we think he has a chance when he's done here to be a pro, either in Europe or a higher level."
The year of not playing will give Gamble a chance to get bigger -- he came in a 169 pounds and is up to 180 -- and gain more experience.
Gamble was backing up Mantoris Robinson at small forward, and Peele now has to find a solution to that problem. Raymond Davis, the 6-4 junior college transfer who will probably start at shooting guard tonight, may try to learn the small forward position as well, or it could be 6-6 Cameron Stanley, the transfer from Wake Forest, who could also start at the four spot.
Peele also considered a redshirt year for 6-2 freshman shooting guard Andre Jones, but he has played very well. He, 6-1 sophomore Byron Faison and Davis, Peele said, could fill the shooting guard role "by committee." Peele likes Jones' competitiveness and toughness.
"He brings some energy, he's confident and when he comes in, he'll make something happen. It just may not always be something good," Peele said.
He'll be looking to see how much his young team has improved in tonight's opener.
North Greenville, an NCAA Division II team, plays a Princeton-style offense which could put some pressure on Winthrop's aggressive defense. But the Crusaders lost 90-40 to Kennesaw State in a recent exhibition.
Coach Chad Lister doesn't have a starter over 6-8 and started two freshman at guard against Kennesaw. The Crusaders shot 34 percent and turned the ball over 32 times.
Peele wasn't taking anything for granted. The Eagles practiced Thursday afternoon then came back at 9 p.m. for some additional work. Of course, Peele's trying to get them ready for the week ahead.
The past three seasons, Winthrop has gone 3-1, 3-1 and 4-0 in its first four games. He hopes this year's start is as surprising as last year's, when the Eagles went to the Virgin Islands and beat Illinois-Chicago and Georgia Tech before losing to Baylor in the Paradise Jam finals.
"On the flight down there last year," Peele said, "I didn't think we'd be good enough to win a game. But when we got there I found out we were ahead of schedule compared to six other teams.
"After North Greenville, we're playing a team from the SEC, the MAC and Davidson, a top 20 team. Not one of those can be counted as a win. But I don't worry about that. I just worry about the next game."