It’s too early in the 2017-18 men’s college basketball season to make any sweeping statements. But Winthrop has played nine games, which gives some idea of where the team, with its seven new players, is headed.
Pat Kelsey’s crew will be annoyed about lost upset opportunities at Colorado State and Georgia, but everything else has pretty much gone as they would have guessed, especially in three games against non-Division I opponents. All were blowout wins.
And Winthrop is scoring the ball like Kelsey wants his teams to, with eight players averaging 7.7 points per game or more, led by Xavier Cooks (17.4), and the team averaging close to 90 per game.
The Eagles are in the midst of 11 days without competitive action because of the semester’s final exams, before traveling to Alabama State Dec. 16 and VCU Dec. 19. Big South Conference play begins Dec. 30 at home against High Point.
Here’s five things that are clear about the 2017-18 Winthrop men’s basketball team, thus far:
This team can really shoot the ball from deep
Successful 3-point shooting is a baseline of Kelsey’s program and this team embodies that.
The Eagles are 26th nationally in 3-point attempts, 13th in 3-pointers made and in the top-50 in percentage made (40.3).
Six of the seven Eagles that have attempted double-digit 3’s are shooting over 38 percent. Junior Austin Awad may have been the most pleasant surprise; the junior college transfer is shooting close to 50 percent from beyond the arc on 45 attempts.
The depth of quality Winthrop shooters takes the pressure off any one player to deliver, while also opening up the floor for drivers like guard Nych Smith and Cooks.
“It opens up the lanes,” said Cooks. “Against Georgia, a lot of their players were worried about the shooters so that really opened up the lane for me. I knew I could have a good game in that game.”
Xavier Cooks’ busy summer is paying off
Cooks won his second straight Big South player of the week award on Monday, one of many indications of how well he’s playing in the early going. Cooks posted a triple-double (with 11 assists) against Reinhardt, then dropped 31 on Georgia this past week. He leads Winthrop in:
▪ blocked shots
▪ field goals made
▪ field goals attempted
▪ free throw makes
▪ free throw attempts
▪ minutes per game
The 6-foot-8 Aussie hasn’t hit the breaks since early August, after hosting his teammates and coaches during their tour of Australia, then immediately traveling to Taiwan for the World University Games where he represented his country. Cooks was one of the top players on Australia’s squad, averaging 13.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists in seven games.
“I learned a lot playing overseas. I learned the power of passing, the power of people movement, without the ball,” said Cooks. “International basketball, it’s a lot more like soccer. You have to just keep cutting around and over here it’s more 1-on-1. So I learned the power of cuts.”
Winthrop’s rebounding has to improve
Winthrop has to improve on the backboards to have a chance of returning to the NCAA Tournament.
In Division I games, the Eagles rank 343rd (out of 351 teams) in offensive rebounding percentage, the percentage of rebounds on Winthrop’s defensive backboard that opponents grab for second chances.
The frontcourt group is still coming together. But with Cooks, Josh Ferguson, Austin Awad and Jermaine Ukaegbu, there is promise. The latter two should be more effective against smaller Big South competition.
Cooks compared Ukaegbu to Ed Polite Jr., the all-conference player from Radford who is a great rebounder and an energetic dynamo on the court. But Ukaegbu, the 6-foot-6 junior college transfer, has been saddled with foul trouble throughout the first month and hasn’t been able to impact games the way he should. He’s averaging just 13 minutes per game.
Bjorn Broman and the Eagles are taking care of the ball
Winthrop, especially junior guard Bjorn Broman, has been very careful with the basketball so far. Broman didn’t turn the ball over once in the Eagles’ three non-Division I wins and still has a 3:1 assist:turnover ratio against Winthrop’s stout Division I opponents. He’s 15th in NCAA Division I with a 4.14 assist:turnover ratio.
Winthrop had only eight turnovers against Georgia and is top-50 nationally in assist:turnover ratio as a team. That’s contributed to the team’s free-scoring ways.
“He doesn’t turn it over too much,” Anders Broman said about his brother. “It’s fun to play with guys like that.”
Nych Smith gives the Eagles’ backcourt something different
This is where we need some sort of stat about a player’s average speed during a game. Because Smith would lead Winthrop in that stat. By a lot.
Smith, who played at Fordham as a freshman, transferred to the junior college level as a sophomore and came to Winthrop this summer, is a speedster and has helped offset some of the quickness that left with Keon Johnson’s graduation.
“Nych lives in the paint, that’s where he’s so dangerous,” said Anders Broman, one of the shooters on the team that benefits from Smith’s drives. “We just need him to keep getting in there, and if they stick on shooters, for him to finish. He’s a great player and he’s tough to guard for other teams.”
Smith’s shot selection is still improving -- he probably had the green light to shoot whatever he wanted in junior college -- but his pace will be important in conference play for the Eagles, who don’t have a ton of quick guards.
Cooks, Broman and Kelsey weigh in
What’s gone as expected?
What’s been worse than expected?
What’s been a surprise?
Taking care of the ball, limiting turnovers
How good the offense is (even better than he expected)
Scoring the ball at a high rate
Defending, particularly defensive rebounding, needs to improve
How quickly the team is starting to gel