When Winthrop's basketball players got together in the summer and early fall for informal pickup games, sophomore guard Byron Faison never envisioned the Eagles having trouble putting the ball in the basket.
"I thought we had a lot of shooters," Faison said on Thursday, shortly after the Eagles wrapped up a three-hour practice in preparation for tonight's game at Old Dominion.
Faison is partially correct. The Eagles have had plenty of shooters. Nine players have taken at least 27 shots and seven of those have gotten up 42 or more in the Eagles' first eight games. Six have taken at least 10 3-pointers.
The problem is the Eagles haven't found many "makers," and if there's one large reason Winthrop is 1-7 and on a seven-game losing streak, it's that inability to get the ball in the bucket.
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Faison, who is probably the Eagles' best perimeter threat, is shooting 40 percent overall, 31 percent on 3-pointers. He's as bewildered as anyone about why the ball isn't going in.
"We do a lot of shooting," Faison said. "Right now, it has a lot to do with our confidence and we're not taking good shots.
"I guess the way to get out of it is just to pretty much keep shooting. Shoot good shots and they'll fall."
The Eagles are shooting 38 percent overall and 28 percent on 3-pointers, both figures ranking at the bottom of the Big South Conference stats.
Point guards Justin Burton and Reggie Middleton have combined to shoot 30 percent overall, 20 percent from behind the arc. Shooting guards Faison and Andre Jones are 36 percent overall, 28 percent on threes. And small forwards Mantoris Robinson and Raymond Davis are 34 percent overall and an icy 19 percent from behind the arc.
If not for Cameron Stanley, Charles Corbin, Chris Malcolm and George Valentine, who are a combined 45 percent, including 43 percent on 3-pointers, the numbers would be very ugly. Malcolm is shooting 48 percent, but has taken just 27 shots, and Cameron is shooting 46 percent, while taking a team-high 75 shots.
"We've just got to keep working on it," coach Randy Peele said. "Got to keep getting reps. And the other thing is understanding the difference between a quick shot that's a good shot and a quick shot that isn't."
Normally, the Eagles have been able to chop up defenses with their intricate sets and execution. But this year, even when the execution has been good, the end result has too often been a clanged jumper or the inability to finish at the rim.
"No matter what play you diagram," Peele said, "you've still got to make the shot."
Because they haven't made shots consistently -- they have yet to shoot 50 percent in a game -- Peele admits his team is easy to guard right now.
Those offensive issues are working against the defense. The quick shots that don't fall lead to transition baskets for the opposition. And when the shots don't go down, the frustration mounts and the effort on defense takes a hit.
"We're giving up more points than we ever have," Peele said, "because we turn it over and take quick shots."
Since losing two weeks ago at Radford, the Eagles have been working on playing at a better, slower pace, while preparing for the zone defenses Peele knows are going to come until those jumpers start falling.
The Eagles are likely to see a lot of packed-in zone tonight at the Constant Convocation Center, with the Monarchs (5-3) on a four-game winning streak and playing with confidence. ODU beat Duquesne 86-60 on the road in its last outing.
Winthrop has beaten the Monarchs the past two seasons.
Coach Blaine Taylor has 6-10, 250-pound Gerald Lee (14.3 points, 5.4 rebounds) in the middle, a pair of big, quick guards in Kent Bazemore and Ben Finney, both 6-5, a steady point guard in Darius James and athletic, 6-8 forward Keyon Carter.
"They are really, really good," Peele said. "They are good enough to win the Colonial (Athletic Association). Lee is as skilled a big man as we've seen with the possible exception of the N.C. State players. Everybody can score. And he's got veteran players back."
Peele has used the past two weeks of practice, in between final exams, to work on a lot of things, including shooting, going inside first and looking for jump shots second, and finding the right lineup. Freshmen Middleton and Jones could start tonight in the backcourt, along with Corbin, Stanley and Robinson up front.
"We've been working hard the past two weeks," Peele said, "and we've gotten better. We're not where I want us to be.
"We've been working on the things that will give us the best chance to win.
"It's going to work out. We're not going to quit."
The Eagles host College of Charleston on Monday night before taking a break for the holidays. They close out 2008 with a road game at Florida on Dec. 28.