If Gregg Marshall hadn't changed his mind at the 11th hour and backed out on the coaching job at the College of Charleston, it's not likely the Cougars would be running onto the Winthrop Coliseum court tonight to play the Eagles.
And it might just be possible Bobby Cremins would still be out of coaching. When Marshall balked on the job in the summer of 2006, the College of Charleston was left scrambling to find a coach. They found Cremins, who had been out of coaching six years and was living at Hilton Head, spending a lot of time playing golf and some of the basketball season doing television commentary.
"That's a good question," Cremins said, when asked if he'd be back in coaching had Marshall stuck around. "But I knew I really wanted to get back in it. I didn't feel like I had any purpose."
Cremins, who ran his team through a light workout at the Winthrop Coliseum on Sunday night, said getting back into coaching has "probably added 10 years to my life."
He's in his third season in Charleston. His team won 22 games his first season and reached the Southern Conference tournament finals. But last year, the record dropped to 16-17 as the program experienced the kind of year Winthrop is facing right now.
"That kind of felt like our first year," Cremins said, between shouts of encouragement to his players. "That was our rebuilding year."
With eight players and five starters back this season, the Cougars are 9-1, their best start since the 2003-04 season. They bring an eight-game winning streak into tonight's matchup with the 1-8 Eagles, who, in coach Randy Peele's second season, are struggling with a host of new players and a difficult schedule. The Eagles have lost eight in a row.
Cremins met with Peele briefly before his team's practice on Sunday and told him to hang in.
"Winthrop has great tradition," Cremins said, "and Randy having to follow Gregg was like following a legend. But Randy was a big part of their success.
"I know I wouldn't be standing here if Gregg had stayed."
He's glad Marshall changed his mind. He has a veteran, athletic team that, he said, "is playing well."
The only loss was to Temple in the second game of the season by five points, and the Cougars are playing an up-tempo style that highlights the team's athleticism and shooting. About the only fault Cremins can find at this point is "we've been sloppy with the ball, and that's the only thing that upsets me right now."
While the Cougars' 9-1 record is impressive, they've done it against teams with a combined record of 43-54. They've beaten five teams with losing records and two others who are .500.
But UNC Wilmington coach Benny Moss, after the Cougars whipped the Seahawks 100-80 last Friday, told the Charleston Post & Courier that Cremins' team "is as good as anyone we've played," including unbeaten Wake Forest and Texas A&M.
Meanwhile, the Eagles' opponents are a combined 55-26, with only North Greenville (Winthrop's only win) and Radford having losing records.
It's easy to see why Peele, after Saturday night's loss at Old Dominion, said again "the schedule has been brutal."
And having played all but two of the first nine games on the road, Peele is convinced the 1-8 record belies his team's abilities.
"This is not a 1-8 team," he said.
On Sunday, Peele was concerned about his team's mental state and decided to give them a day off from a full-scale practice. Instead, they watched a couple of hours of film on the Cougars and then went through some light shooting drills.
The Eagles bused from Norfolk, Va., after Saturday's game and got home about 3:30 a.m.
"We went over their personnel," Peele said, "but I was concerned about them being fresh mentally."
Peele understands tonight's game will be a battle of wills. The Cougars want to play fast, make it a game in the 80s, while the Eagles have to make it a game in the 60s.
"They've got very talented kids and Bobby lets them play," Peele said. "It's going to be contrasting styles. They'll take some quick shots, but if we take quick shots, we lose."
Sophomore guard Andrew Goudelock leads the Cougars with 17.2 points per game and shoots 44 percent on 3-pointers. Dustin Scott, 6-8, and Jermaine Wiggins, 6-7, score in double figures and rebound better than their size.
The Cougars also feed off their three-quarter-court pressure, and, Peele said, if they get a lot of runouts and dunks on offense, it "amps up" the defense even more.
In Saturday's 66-54 loss at ODU, Peele got some positives from the play of freshmen guards Reggie Middleton and Andre Jones, both of whom should start again tonight. And 6-8 sophomore George Valentine played his best game of the year.
"And we played the speed I want," Peele said. "We've got to get to the point at the three-minute mark where we have a chance to win. We did that against Old Dominion.
"I'm excited about the development of the young players."
And Cremins isn't looking at the 1-8 record.
"We've got great respect for the program, because it has great tradition and good coaching," he said. "I knew we were calling for trouble when we scheduled this game."
Cremins is worried, too, because it's the first of a three-game swing that includes nationally ranked Davidson on Dec. 29 and top-ranked North Carolina on Jan. 7.
"This is a tough stretch for us," Cremins said.
Peele's entire season to date has been a tough stretch.
"But," Peele said, "I told our kids we're going to be good. I just don't know when. Maybe January. Maybe February. We're coming."