Winthrop and Radford, the teams picked 1-2 in the Big South Conference preseason poll, didn't expect tonight's game at Radford to be quite this significant, since it's only their second league game.
But after both were thrashed in league openers, the 7 p.m. matchup in tiny Peters Hall looms large.
Winthrop (1-6. 0-1), after taking a 92-74 whipping at VMI on Wednesday, has dropped six in a row, the longest losing streak since a seven-game skid in 1995. Radford, which returned all five starters, added 6-11 transfer Artsiom Parakhouski and was picked in some magazine polls as the league favorite, stumbled out of the gate at home on Thursday, thumped 91-71 by Gardner-Webb.
Both lost in similar fashion. Winthrop had 25 turnovers leading to 31 VMI points and Radford had 23 turnovers, handing G-W 30 points. Radford led by 12 in the first half.
With VMI, Charleston Southern, Presbyterian and Gardner-Webb 1-0 in the conference, the last thing the Eagles and Highlanders need is an 0-2 start. Either VMI or UNCA, who play today at Asheville, will be 2-0, and Gardner-Webb (at Liberty) and/or Presbyterian (at High Point) could be.
Last year, when the Eagles lost their conference opener at High Point and the Panthers and their fans danced at midcourt, Winthrop coach Randy Peele reminded his team "championships aren't won in January." That team had a veteran core of Michael Jenkins, Chris Gaynor, Taj McCullough and Antwon Harris and bounced back to tie for the regular-season title and win the tournament.
After the VMI loss, Peele had another message for a young team that has yet to find a leader. He called timeout with a minute left and had his players take in the celebration going on around them.
On Thursday, he told them, because of the program's winning history, "you are circled" on the calendar of every Big South team.
But the most important message was "we don't understand how hard we've got to compete on the defensive end."
The Eagles are allowing 75 points per game, 10 more per game than they've allowed in any of the past 10 seasons.
Peele could also throw in taking care of the ball and passing. The Eagles have 108 turnovers and just 68 assists. Their 9.17 assists per game is last in the league.
Shooting could be mentioned, too. The Eagles are shooting 38 percent overall, 28 percent on 3-pointers, both marks next to last in the league.
Coach Brad Greenberg's Highlanders (2-4, 0-1) haven't lived up to expectations, either. Like Winthrop, they don't have a win over an NCAA Division I opponent and have lost three straight.
The Highlanders have 112 turnovers and 71 assists and rank last in the league in 3-point field goals per game (4.83). They lead the conference in field goal percentage defense (.386) and 3-point defensive percentage (.252).
Parakhouski, who weighs 260 pounds, averages 13.7 points and 7.8 rebounds. He could pose a large problem for a Winthrop team that hasn't stopped anyone in the post. Plus, the Highlanders have 6-8 Joey Lynch-Flohr (12.5). Senior guard Kenny Thomas leads in scoring (15.7).
After tonight, the Eagles get an extended break for end-of-semester exams. They don't play again until a Dec. 20 road trip to Old Dominion. Tonight is their last conference game until hosting Liberty Jan. 3.
• When: 7 p.m.
• Where: Peters Hall, Radford, Va.
• TV: None
• Radio: WRHI-FM (94.3), airtime 6:30
• Tickets: 540-831-5228
• Winthrop probable starters: G Justin Burton 5-10 So. (8.7 ppg, 2.7 apg); G Byron Faison 6-1 So. (6.7 ppg, 1.1 rpg); C Chris Malcolm 6-7 R-Fr. (3.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg); F Mantoris Robinson 6-5 Jr. (6.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg); F Cameron Stanley 6-6 Sr. (12.6 ppg, 6 rpg).
• Radford probable starters: F Phillip Martin 6-6 Jr. (2 ppg, 2.8 rpg); F Joey Lynch-Flohr 6-8 Jr. (12.5 ppg, 4 rpg); C Artsiom Parakhouski 6-11 Jr. (13.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg); G Amir Johnson 5-9 Jr. (8.1 ppg, 4.5 apg); G Kenny Thomas 6-3 Sr. (15.7 ppg, 4 rpg).
• Notes: Winthop has won 12 straight in the series and hasn't lost at Radford since the 2002-2003 season ... Highlanders are playing home games in Peters Hall while the Dedmon Center gets a new roof ... Winthrop and Radford were picked 1-2 in the Big South Conference preseason poll ... Eagles are shooting a frigid 38 percent overall and just 28 percent on 3-pointers ... Radford leads the Big South in FG percentage defense (.386) and 3-point FG defense (.252) ... Eagles are allowing 75 points per game, and five of six losses have been by double digits ... Eagles have 108 turnovers and 68 assists ... Winthrop averages 9.7 assists per game, last in the league.
• Next up: Winthrop takes a two-week break for end-of-semester exams. They don't play again until a Dec. 20 trip to Old Dominion, 7 p.m.