In October the average sports fan’s focus is still outdoors, especially as the air cools, leaves spin the color wheel, and gloriously sun-dappled Saturdays are spent with thousands of friends at rockin’ football stadiums.
But while all of that is going on, 351 college basketball programs are already in their gyms, unaware of the time of day or weather outside. With games still more than a month away, these are the true unappreciated days of the grind.
NCAA men’s basketball coaches have in some cases two more weeks of practice time than they did before 2013. Winthrop head man Pat Kelsey said his peers in the coaching profession have used – or not used – that time in varying ways.
“Nobody knows the right answer, and everybody’s different,” Kelsey said after his team’s hour and a half Friday afternoon practice. “Some people will go two days on, one day off, some will go two off days in a row.”
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The NCAA now allows 30 practices in the 40 or so days before a program’s season opener, in Winthrop’s case the Nov. 15 home game against Pfeiffer University. While some coaches preferred to wait until the Friday closest to Oct. 15, the old NCAA men’s basketball start date, Kelsey chose to utilize the extra time.
“As you saw today, we’re very mindful of the time we’re on the floor. We won’t compete every single day; we’ll have competitive days and non-contact days,” said Winthrop’s third-year coach, adding that he’s limiting practice durations to avoid burnout later in the campaign.
Despite roster shortfalls and injury hurdles last season, Winthrop finished 20-13 and reached the final of the Big South Conference tournament, before running out of steam in a one-sided loss to Coastal Carolina. It was a step forward in Kelsey’s second year, a close-contact brush with the NCAA Tournament where the school made its name in the first decade of the 2000’s.
“They were so close they could taste it,” said Kelsey. “And to fall a little bit short left a bad taste in their mouths and they’re practicing with a bit of an edge. They realize how close they were and that it’s gonna take a lot of work to get back there again.”
While that experience is in the past, it motivated the returning players all summer-long. Kelsey lauded the Eagles’ offseason effort, and the team looked sharp again on Friday, a full six days into the 2014-15 season.
One of the early tasks is amalgamating a varied cast of newcomers, including Australian freshman wing Xavier Cooks and fellow rookie Freddy Poole, a thick 6-foot-7 freshman who in addition to basketball played tight end and defensive line for Dutch Fork’s football team last season. Another big-bodied freshman, Joseph Lopez, is currently sidelined by mononucleosis.
Several transfers are on the roster, including Zach Price. He’s a 6-foot-10 post player whose career began at Louisville, where he won a national championship, before transferring to Missouri. Price was dismissed from Missouri’s team last spring after being arrested twice in one day – what Kelsey and his staff would deem an out-of-character bad day based on their background research – but is hoping to be able to play immediately for the Eagles.
Price could be a transcendent player for Kelsey’s program, the kind of recruit the Eagles could never nab straight out of high school. Kelsey said the waiver process has been initiated; all Winthrop men’s basketball can do now is wait.
“It’s in the process,” said Kelsey. He didn’t add much more, but did say, “I’ll be in church Sunday working on it.”