Tuesday’s home game against Liberty isn’t a must-win for Winthrop -- we’re not there yet -- but it has a bit more of an urgent feel after the Eagles struggled defensively in consecutive losses to Radford and Campbell. The Eagles gave up 85 and 88 points in last Wednesday and Saturday’s contests.
Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey wasn’t thrilled that Radford’s Ed Polite Jr., and Campbell’s Chris Clemons, the top name on the scouting report for those two teams, both had huge games against the Eagles.
“Although both teams have very good all-around parts, you sure don’t want to let ‘the known,’ as we call it, beat you,” said Kelsey.
Liberty (11-5, 2-1 Big South) will put several players on the floor Tuesday night that could be guarded by eight or nine different Winthrop players. That’s indicative of the versatility that the Flames have on their roster, especially at the guard positions, and also shows how many Eagles players will be under pressure on the defensive end of the floor.
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”Their 1 through 4’s are very interchangeable,” said Kelsey. “Their 2, 3’s and 4’s are all really long and have position versatility. Some of them, you don’t know exactly what to call them.”
What can Winthrop (7-7, 1-2) do better to handle that defensive pressure? Through the first three Big South games, they’ve often been whistled for fouls.
“I think it’s executing our system, adherence to our principals,” said Kelsey. “Sometimes it’s just accepting that 1-on-1 challenge. And Campbell shot 37 free throws so apparently we’re fouling too much.”
It’s tough to nail down a specific reason why, but in the three Big South games so far, five Winthrop players are averaging more than five fouls per 40 minutes, according to KenPom.com. Two more Eagles average 4.9 fouls per 40 minutes, which puts them right on the cusp of disqualification. No other Big South team has more than three players averaging five-plus fouls per 40 minutes.
And Winthrop radio voice Dave Friedman pointed out while watching Monday’s two-hour practice that Eagles star Xavier Cooks has 25 fouls in the last six games. He’s the one player Winthrop cannot have saddled with foul trouble.
“In practice we try to be really critical on fouling because of the new rules on physicality and freedom of movement,” said Kelsey. “Our guys are graded every single day in practice. Every time a guy fouls in practice, even if it’s close we call it a foul, that hurts their efficiency score at the end of practice. It’s pretty alarming, but there are a lot of other very physical teams in the league as well.”
Defending without fouling will be critical against a Liberty team that’s third in the country in free throw percentage (78.8). The Flames get a higher chunk of their offense from free throws than 88 percent of NCAA Division I teams. Guards Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz and Lovell Cabbil want to get fouled. They lead Liberty in free throw attempts and both shoot right around 90 percent from the stripe.
Rebounding looked like a potential source of struggle for Winthrop in the preseason and that’s been true thus far. In 12 of the 15 Big South games so far the team that won the rebounding margin won the game. In seven of those 12 games the rebounding margin was more than 10. The Eagles have been on both sides of that already.
While Winthrop’s rebounding has dipped this season, Liberty has improved, especially defensively. Ritchie McKay’s team isn’t allowing offensive second chances to teams it’s guarding. The Flames are second in the country in allowing just 20.2 percent of rebounds on their defensive backboard to go to the offensive team. Bradley transfer Scottie James, a 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward, has been an immense help to Liberty in that category.
Winthrop, in comparison, is allowing 32.6 percent of its defensive rebounds to go back to the offensive team, which ranks 291st nationally.
No question the Eagles miss graduated seniors Tevin Prescott and Joshua Devenport, but Duby Okeke, who transferred to Nebraska late in the recruiting cycle, was another big departure. One player’s presence or absence isn’t the sole reason for Winthrop’s interior defense and rebounding struggles, but it’s fair to say the Eagles coaching staff didn’t expect the 6-foot-8, 230-pounder’s exit. Davenport and Okeke were physical presences at the small forward and center spots that haven’t been replaced on the roster.
That might have been most evident against the Highlanders last Wednesday. Kelsey thought Radford was “more physical than us. They really present that physical challenge to you and you’ve got to answer that.”
There is plenty of time for Winthrop to get its defense sorted out. And the team is still scoring freely.
Bjorn Broman is off to a sizzling shooting start in Big South play. The junior guard is 13-of-20 from 3-point range and 19-for-29 from the floor in total. He needs more help, though. Winthrop is shooting just 34 percent from 3-point range in its first three league games, but if you take out Broman’s contribution that figure plummets to 23 percent.
And junior guard Adam Pickett followed up his 14-point game against High Point with 13 and 12-point efforts, all while starting. He has just one turnover in the last two games and six assists. Pickett had never registered consecutive starts or three straight double-digit scoring games as an Eagle before last week.
The Eagles haven’t had a three-game conference losing streak in two years, while Liberty hasn’t won in Rock Hill since 2004. Much better attentiveness to the scouting report and more (legal) physicality on the court would help Winthrop prolong both of those streaks.