Winthrop begins an important week of Big South Conference play Monday night at home against Gardner-Webb.
The Eagles dropped three straight league games before beating Charleston Southern last Friday. Pat Kelsey’s team can continue to make up ground in the league standings with Monday night’s game and Thursday night’s home contest against UNC Asheville, which tips off at 9 p.m. and will be aired nationally on ESPNU. Gardner-Webb tops the league currently, while Asheville, the preseason title favorite, has had an uneven start like Winthrop (8-8, 2-3 Big South).
The Runnin’ Bulldogs (9-9, 4-1) are first up, though, and represent a very difficult test for Winthrop. Here are five things to keep an eye on at The Coliseum Monday night:
▪ In Big South game, none of Winthrop’s five newcomers -- Austin Awad, Chuck Falden, Nych Smith, Kyle Zunic or Jermaine Ukaegbu -- are scoring more than 1.00 point per possession, an average offensive rating. Three of the five returning players are over that mark, with Anders Broman (94.2) and Xavier Cooks (95.0) performing below. Winthrop needs some of this year’s new additions -- at least one or two? -- to emerge offensively to give the Eagles a shot at contending higher up the standings table. Since Dec. 5, Awad had made just 2-of-23 from 3-point range, before hitting 3-of-5 against Charleston Southern. His nine points and five rebounds were a big contribution for the Eagles, who had gotten very little from the bench in the first four league games.
▪ One Winthrop player performing at a potentially All-Conference level is junior guard Bjorn Broman. For two years he’s been a solid defender that didn’t turn the ball over, easily overlooked by the general public, but he’s cranked up his scoring this year to become more of an all-purpose threat for the Eagles. He’s shooting 60 percent from 3-point range (21-of-35) in Big South play, has the third-lowest turnover rate in the conference, and his 153.3 offensive rating is second best. Broman is making a very high percentage of his shots, setting his teammates up, rarely turning the ball over, and still defending at a high level.
▪ UNC Asheville coach Nick McDevitt and Winthrop’s Kelsey are widely regarded as two of the best coaches in the Big South, if not the best. But Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft should certainly be considered in that conversation. He’s made the Runnin’ Bulldogs a very tough proposition the last few years, recruiting specific players that fit the physical and athletic team that he has in mind. Craft has led Gardner-Webb to at least 10 regular season conference games each of his four seasons, and the fact that the Runnin’ Bulldogs are top of the league despite losing All-Conference senior Tyrell Nelson and guard Laquincy Rideau to transfer (South Florida) tells you how good of a job he has done thus far.
▪ Gardner-Webb has an emerging player similar to Broman in senior wing Liam O’Reilly. A junior college transfer, O’Reilly may have been pegged as merely a shooter last year, and he is still doing that well this year (45 percent from 3-point range), but he’s doing other things too. O’Reilly is chipping in 4.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game and has been the team’s most efficient offensive player in conference play, a huge boost for the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ backcourt given Rideau’s unexpected departure.
▪ Even with 6-foot-6, 250-pound forward Brandon Miller sidelined, Gardner-Webb will have a substantial size advantage over Winthrop, one it will try to impose on the backboards. Of the tidal wave of statistics available on KenPom.com, one is particularly illuminating to Winthrop’s rebounding struggles. Out of the 351 NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams, Winthrop is 302nd or lower in defensive rebounding from each of the point guard, shooting guard and small forward positions. Of course, KenPom.com doesn’t always have exact knowledge of which Winthrop players are playing which exact position, but the stat gives an idea of the scant rebounding coming from the Eagles’ shorter players. The Eagles get 33.8 and 30.9 percent of their rebounds (64.7 percent) from the center and power forward positions, or more specifically Xavier Cooks and Josh Ferguson. Combining that stat with anecdotal evidence, it makes sense that many of the offensive rebounds that Winthrop is surrendering come from the smaller three positions. Opponents’ offensive rebounds could also be linked to some of the Eagles’ foul troubles, which have relaxed a bit the last two games but will still be an issue going forward because of the smaller makeup of the roster.
Bottom line: Winthrop, which is 2-0 when winning Big South rebound battles, better box out against a rebound-hungry Gardner-Webb club.
Big South men’s basketball standings
(as of Jan. 14, 2018)
Big South record
at UNC Asheville
at High Point