After 10 games, it's already been a long season in one respect for Winthrop basketball. The Eagles are 1-9 and have lost nine in a row.
The program isn't accustomed to losing very often, much less losing nine consecutive games.
But the season is just one-third finished, with, coach Randy Peele hopes, plenty of time for a turnaround. There are 19 regular-season games left, and at least one game in the conference tournament, counting today's 6:30 p.m. matchup against Florida (9-2) at the Orange Bowl Classic in Sunrise, Fla.
November and December have been the cruelest months for the Eagles, but a new season starts next weekend, when Big South Conference play resumes. The Eagles, 0-2 in the league, host Liberty on Saturday and play four of their first five January league games at Winthrop Coliseum, a court the Eagles have seen just three times in the first two months of the season.
"Once this game is over," Peele said, "I feel like nonconference play for us is over. Our season starts with league play in January, and everything we're doing is just to get better."
With one game left in 2008, Peele isn't so much worried about Xs and Os as about his players' resilience.
"These are 18, 19-year-old kids," he said, "and they've been hit over and over again. My worry is how do I coach them without them losing confidence. I'm going to be positive, because I'm proud of them."
In their last game, the Eagles dropped a 77-76 decision to College of Charleston in a game neither team led by more than seven points. The Eagles didn't score in the final two minutes, 12 seconds, and the Cougars escaped.
"I told them they had nothing to be ashamed of," Peele said. "They left everything on the floor."
Winthrop's performance reflected the work put in during practice the previous two weeks.
"The last two weeks I've never seen the players work harder," said sophomore Charles Corbin, who had a career-high 22 points against the Cougars. "The guys are more competitive. We're all working harder.
"We know we've played a tough schedule, but nobody's using that for an excuse."
Corbin is among those showing some dramatic strides. In the past four games, the 6-7 sophomore averaged 15.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and shot a sizzling 62 percent.
"He's really coming," Peele said.
After the College of Charleston game, Peele was disappointed, but energized by the improved play of Corbin, freshmen Reggie Middleton and Andre Jones, sophomore George Valentine and walk-on Chad Dewitt.
"The kids are getting better," Peele said. "We played two excellent teams (Old Dominion and Charleston) with a chance to win at the end. I'm not discouraged."
The grueling road trip that has been November and December ends, and that's the good news. The bad news is it closes against one of the nation's top programs.
Florida, which won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007, owns a three-game winning streak. The Gators' only losses have been by six points to Syracuse on a neutral court and by two to Florida State on the road.
The Gators average almost 80 points a game, shoot 49 percent as a team, with 6-6 guard Nick Calathes (15.6), 6-8 forward Alex Tyus (14.5) and 6-8 forward Dan Werner (10.5) scoring in double figures, and use multiple presses on defense.
"They're a bigger, better version of VMI," Peele said.
Like Winthrop, coach Billy Donovan's team isn't the biggest, with the 6-8 Tyus, a natural power forward, having to play in the middle. Donovan and Peele have emphasized rebounding to their teams, and Peele spent the two weeks before the College of Charleston game working on ways to get more inside offensive punch.
The free throw line has been a killer for the Eagles the past two games. Old Dominion and the Cougars made 41 of 61 free throws, while the Eagles were just 15-of-24.
Peele has also put an emphasis on taking care of the ball, although he understands that may not be easy now that he's starting freshmen Middleton and Jones in the backcourt. The Eagles have 146 turnovers compared with 96 assists. Starters Cameron Stanley, Mantoris Robinson and Corbin have a combined 67 turnovers.
With the November-December portion of the schedule finished today, Peele hopes the bumps and bruises his team has taken pay off in the end.
"We need to play games like this," Peele said. "It's going to help us. Nobody in our league is going to try and take away things the way Florida will. I really think (November and December) is going to help us."
n NOTES: Winthrop's Raymond Davis, who missed the game against College of Charleston, is expected to be out two weeks. He has plantar fasciitis (painful inflammation of the tissue that supports the arch) in both feet ... Andre Jones played 20 minutes against the Cougars, but spent much of the second half on the bench with ice packs on his left knee. It is thought to be tendinitis, a problem he had in high school. Jones was able to practice on Friday, though, and it appears likely he will play today.