Winthrop University

Hoops season to start with questions for Eagles

Here's how you know basketball season is about two dribbles away.

Randy Peele is having trouble sleeping.

The Winthrop coach, starting his second season, is already wound tighter than a cheap watch.

And he wouldn't have it any other way.

"Can't wait to get going," he said this week.

Through the summer and early fall, he's put together another killer schedule, watched tape, gone to Charlotte Bobcats practice trying to pick up something from Larry Brown that might help, talked hoops with other coaches, made recruiting trips and probably worn out a dozen dry erase markers sketching plays.

"Got to figure out how we want to play," he said.

The first of 27 or so practices comes Friday. The season opens Nov. 14 against North Greenville and then comes a torrent of tough opponents -- South Carolina, Akron, Davidson, N.C. State, East Carolina, VMI, Radford, Old Dominion, College of Charleston, Florida, eight of them on the road. And that's just before December ends.

Peele knows there's plenty to do, with a 15-player roster that includes 10 players who are either freshmen or sophomores. It would have been 16, but 6-9 freshman walk-on Case Stiglbauer, apparently tired of playing the game, quit the team.

Those comfortable days of having three of four veterans around are gone. Last year at this time, he was going into practice with seniors Chris Gaynor, Michael Jenkins, Taj McCullough and Antwon Harris. This year, his lone senior is walk-on Jonathan Rice, after 6-9 center Andy Buechert was lost for the season with a torn ACL.

He's got no clear-cut star, no proven point guard, no proven scorer. But he's got a lot of long, athletic bodies that will make practices interesting. He could wind up redshirting a couple of freshmen, but he has some time to make that decision. He's going to see how things shake down once the afternoon pick-up games are over and the structured, intense practices begin.

The pick-up games have been interesting. Freshman point guard Reggie Middleton looks like a player. Cameron Stanley, the transfer from Wake Forest, is a shooter. George Valentine and Charles Corbin are improved. Reed-thin Gideon Gamble (up 10 pounds to 179) appears to understand the game better than most freshmen.

All the players have had their moments, but pick-up is one thing and being in the right place at the right time in Peele's system is something else.

Come Friday, those pick-up games will mean about as much as a pregame layup.

There are indications the Eagles might extend the defense, because they have so many interchangeable parts. But who can score? Who can consistently make a jump shot? Can they defend the way Peele wants, especially in the post? With Gaynor gone, who runs this team? Who's the vocal leader? How quickly do the freshman catch on to the system? By January, will they be beaten down by the schedule?

There are enough questions with this team that it's probably going to be picked somewhere in the middle of the pack when the Big South Conference holds its media days on Monday and Tuesday in Charlotte. Unlike the past three seasons, there are few reasons to pick this team first, other than their four straight championship trophies and the fact they've dominated the league for eight of the past 10 seasons.

The preseason magazines are either out or on the way. Some have been on the shelves so long you'd think they were leftovers from last year. The preseason predictions are, if nothing else, good for a little conversation over a cold one.

To say the predictions vary is an understatement.

One mag picks Winthrop to win the league, while another picks the Eagles sixth. One mag picks VMI to win its first league title and another says the Keydets will finish ninth.

Of the five polls out, two (Blue Ribbon, Athlon) pick Winthrop. Two (Sporting News, Sports Weekly) pick Radford. VMI gets the nod from the other (Lindy's).

Radford, with five starters back, and Gardner-Webb, with four returning, were the only teams in the top four of all those lists.

Every team has key players to replace -- Arizona Reid at High Point, Reggie Williams at VMI, Gaynor, Jenkins and McCullough at Winthrop, Jack Leasure at Coastal Carolina, K.J. Garland and Bryan Smithson at UNC Asheville, Chris Moore at Charleston Southern, Alex McLean and TeeJay Bannister at Liberty.

In some cases, the "experts" picking those finishes had to submit them before some interesting things happened during the summer, among them Winthrop losing Buechert and UNC Asheville losing 7-7 Kenny George, probably for the year, following foot surgery.

The preseason all-conference teams have been interesting, too. Not one player was listed on every preseason team in the above mentioned publications. Liberty's Anthony Smith and Charleston Southern's Omar Carter were named on four.

And Winthrop?

The defending champions didn't get a player on any of the teams. That hasn't happened since the 2004-05 season, when the Eagles were coming off a quarterfinal loss in the Big South tournament and were picked fourth in the league's preseason poll. The Eagles finished first, by the way, starting their run of four straight titles.

No team in Big South history has won five in a row. Peele isn't one to think it can't be done, despite all the uncertainty around his team.

"It's going to be different," he said, "but it's going to be exciting, too."

He'll sleep next spring.