Winthrop men’s basketball coach Pat Kelsey opened one of his practices in early January by imploring his players not to view college basketball as a grind but as a blessing. That might be a challenge this week.
The Eagles (11-10, 6-4 Big South) are in the midst of a four games in seven days stretch, one that challenges even the young players of Winthrop’s college basketball players. Monday night’s home game against Charleston Southern (13-8, 7-3) will be the Eagles’ third in five days. The streak started with last Wednesday’s road win at Coastal Carolina and continued Saturday at Radford where the Eagles faded late for their first loss in four games.
Monday night’s contest will be followed by Wednesday’s home game against conference winless Liberty. Four games in seven days. Some might call that a “grind,” to use the modern phrase, but not Kelsey.
“I hate the word ‘grind,’ ” he said Sunday. “We have fresh Adidas on our feet, a beautiful campus to learn on, and a great school to go to, Winthrop has a great basketball program and tradition. There is no grind to me. It’s a blessing to be able to do what we do.”
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Maintaining that attitude in the team’s current stretch is the goal.
VMI’s exit from the Big South Conference last summer left the league with 11 teams, and a scheduling headache in men’s basketball. Eighteen Big South games for 11 teams had to be squeezed into a 60-day window, meaning each school will suffer the kind of stretch Winthrop is currently enduring.
“It’s not that traditional Wednesday, Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday, where you can really get in a groove and know how the week’s gonna go,” Kelsey said. “It’s very, very unorthodox. And everybody is going through it so there is no use complaining about it.”
The Big South’s public relations guru, Mark Simpson, said that the league is working on a conference schedule that would start in December with two games, leaving 16 to be played in January and February. He said the Big South hopes to return to that format beginning next season.
Sunday found the Eagles preparing for the Bucs and their point guard, Saah Nimley, the conference’s leading scorer at 20 points per game. Oddly enough for a fairly even all-time series, Winthrop has beaten Charleston Southern 12 straight times in the Coliseum. To keep that streak going Monday, it’s likely the Eagles will need help from the bench. Kelsey’s team has eight players averaging at least 15 minutes per game and 10 averaging at least 11. Bench players make up 33.6 percent of the Eagles’ total game minutes, a figure just above the NCAA average.
Using the team’s bench, as well as shorter practices and longer recovery/stretching sessions are some of the ways that Kelsey keeps his all of players feeling limber and loose during January and February.
“We’ve got to be as smart as possible with the amount of wear and tear on our bodies at practice. We have to do a lot of mental reps and film and walk-throughs,” said Kelsey. “And just like we only had one day to get ready for Charleston Southern, they only had one day as well. It’s an even playing field from that perspective, but it doesn’t make it any easier.”
Keeping physically sharp during such a crammed schedule is difficult, but maintaining mental spring is also tough. That’s why Kelsey tries to keep things light at times, something he gleaned from working with late Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser. For example, Winthrop ends every shoot-around on game days with a half-court shot contest.
“You’ve got to try to make them laugh every once in a while,” said Kelsey. “They know I’m extremely serious and passionate and we really, really harp on having a serious purpose every day. But you want them to know that you the coach, you’re human too. And I don’t care if we’re playing for the national championship, a the end of shoot-around we’ll always do half-court shots.”