Keon Johnson got his first chance as a Winthrop basketball player during an Eagles’ closed-door scrimmage in 2013. Two upperclassmen were unavailable – one had a tender hamstring and the other overslept and missed the bus up to UNC Greensboro – so Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey told Johnson it was his chance to win some playing time.
The freshman – essentially a third stringer that morning – played the entire game, scoring 25 points and doling out six assists in a performance that set the bar for his excellent career that followed. It may be a few years before we learn whether anything similar happened this preseason, but 2016-17 Winthrop players are conscious of similar kinds of opportunities owing to the team’s depth.
Lineup chemistry will be critical for Winthrop this season as it tries to turn its Big South preseason favorite honorific into an actual postseason berth for the first time in six years.
“I think if you polled coaches around the country, they would consider it a problem, but a good problem,” said Kelsey after Friday’s practice.
You would hope there would be finality after six weeks of practice, and a lot of things have been sorted out for sure, but there’s a lot of things to still be determined.
Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey
Ferrum, the first of three non-Div. I opponents Winthrop will play this season, won’t provide the kind of test that the Eagles will get the following week (Manhattan, Florida State and Illinois). But if the Eagles pull away against Ferrum as expected Saturday evening, it should afford Kelsey the chance to experiment.
“I think as the year goes on we’ll figure out different lineups, who to go with to get different connections,” said sophomore guard Bjorn Broman. “But I think right now we’ll be very deep and coach will put the right lineups on the floor at the right time.”
In part because of injuries, Winthrop didn’t hit a true rotational groove last season until mid-January, right around the time that the Eagles got hot. Kelsey doesn’t think it’ll take as long this season.
“But at least a month or so to see how roles are defined,” he said. “I would think for a lot of guys on our roster that’s a good thing, because every time we come to practice everybody – top to bottom, one to 16 – is being evaluated every time they step on the floor. It has made for very competitive practices over the last six weeks.”
Xavier Cooks said there have already been more scraps in practice than in his last two years.
“It’s honestly a good thing, people are caring more,” he said while tightening his shoe laces before Friday’s two and a half hour practice. “We’re holding each other accountable to practice hard every day.”
11 Players, out of Winthrop’s 16, who are either juniors or seniors. Experience and maturity should help the squad deal with the inevitable frayed nerves that result from competition for minutes on the court.
It’s indicative of the competition for places in practice, but perhaps even more encouraging – and indicative of the team’s experience and maturity – is the spats are left on the court.
“A lot of the boys are older now,” Cooks said. “We care so much about each other that we know these little fights are out of competitiveness. After practice we’re still gonna go to the locker room and hug it out.”
This bunch is easily Kelsey’s deepest and most talented roster. The Eagles could biggie-size their lineup at times, putting post players Cooks, Tevin Prescott and Duby Okeke on the deck at the same time, or go turbo with more guards, like Johnson, Adam Pickett and Rod Perkins. The roster also has several specialists, including Okeke, one of the best shot blockers in the nation, and junior transfer Anders Broman, a 3-point assassin in practices the last year-plus.
“We’ve got a lot of pieces,” said Bjorn Broman, Anders’ younger brother. “We’ve got guys that can shoot it, guys that can drive, the preseason player of the year, another first teamer, so we’ve got guys for everything. I think we can be very effective if we put all the pieces together, learn to play together and just trust each other.
“I think if that happens, we’re gonna have a good year.”
Johnson, the Big South’s preseason player of the year, is probably the first name written in the scorebook these days, but it wasn’t always like that. As an unproven freshman, Johnson learned a lesson that many of his current teammates need to keep in mind.
“They know the story,” said Kelsey.
Keondre Schumacher’s highlights:
Austin Awad’s highlights:
Two sign with Winthrop this week
Winthrop signed a pair of players earlier this week that will join the program next season. The Eagles have five open scholarships on the horizon, with two of them earmarked for high school senior guard Keondre Schumacher and junior college sophomore Austin Awad.
Schumacher is a 6-foot-1 point guard from central Illinois that likes to score and can shoot from distance. He was an honorable mention All-State selection as a junior last year. Awad is a 6-foot-6, 200-pound wing at Eastern Florida State College that shot 38 percent from beyond the arc in 20 minutes per game last season. Awad was a second team All-Conference pick in Florida’s juco league.