With Coastal Carolina off playing its new buddies Idaho and El Dorado Tech and whoever else in the Sun Belt Conference, Winthrop and UNC Asheville’s rivalry has assumed the mantle as the Big South’s best in men’s basketball.
The two schools renew that rivalry late Thursday night on ESPNU, which has become something of a given in the Chanticleers’ absence.
“It seemed like after Coastal left the league it just naturally happened,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “Close proximity to us and we’ve both been good the last several years. It’s just one of those games where you throw out everything. You just know it’s gonna be a knockdown, drag-out.”
Both Winthrop and UNC Asheville started league play 1-2 but found firm footing since. The Bulldogs have ripped off three straight wins by 40 total points, while Winthrop made quick work of Charleston Southern on the road before flattening Gardner-Webb earlier this week. Thanks to Wednesday’s snow dump in the Carolinas, classes are canceled Thursday at Winthrop. Will that impact student turnout at The Coliseum?
“We’ve spent a lot of time promoting this game to our students,” said Kelsey. “I just hope we have a big student turnout if anything.”
Check out some of the promotion of Thursday night’s game that Pat Kelsey has been busy with this week:
Winthrop-UNC Asheville games have been very enjoyable viewing the last few years. Seventeen points have decided the last five meetings.
The winners of the last two Big South NCAA Tournament bids both love a 3-pointer, especially the Bulldogs, one of the top-shooting teams in the country. Through six conference games, UNC Asheville leads the league in free throw, 2-point and 3-point shooting percentage. Comprehensive. And Kelsey’s latest team continues to reflect his affinity for the 3-pointer. Forty-three percent of the Eagles’ field goal attempts are 3’s.
Both teams are guard-heavy. In the last few weeks, Nick McDevitt has opted for four guards in the UNC Asheville starting lineup with 6-foot-3 senior standout Ahmad Thomas doing dirty work down low alongside slender 6-foot-9 German sophomore Jonathan Baehre. It’s easy to see why the Bulldogs’ rebounding efforts are dominated by guards. They’ve got an alley-fighting, experienced group led by Thomas. Six-foot-2, 200-pound senior Kevin Vannatta would probably be a lot of Big South players’ last choice to fight, while 6-foot-3, 190-pound sophomore MaCio Teague combines skill with great size for his position.
Kelsey has great respect for the Thomas-Teague-Vannatta trio.
▪ On Thomas, Kelsey said: “One of those matchup nightmares. I think he’s one of the best defenders, shoot, maybe in the country.”
▪ On Teague: “One of the elite players in our league. Just a scoring machine but also a conscientious defender.”
▪ On Vannatta: “He’s an Ohio guy. He’s just tough, savvy, veteran... did I mention tough? Just a winner.”
If Winthrop can hold its own against Asheville’s skilled and wizened backcourt, it should have opportunities to score close to the basket. The visitors use just three players taller than 6-foot-4, and their taller guys aren’t physical loads, they’re the lithe type.
Neither team has depth in the post, but Winthrop has a definite advantage there. Xavier Cooks and Josh Ferguson dominated Gardner-Webb, a much thicker and more physical proposition down low than Asheville, and a repeat Thursday night would make things tough on the visitors. Cooks is a known quantity, but Ferguson’s recent emergence during conference play has been immensely helpful. The 6-foot-8 sophomore has scored 10 or more points in four of the last five games and he’s shooting 68 percent in Big South games. Ferguson got himself into a lot of good positions near the rim last season but wasn’t always strong enough to finish. But his work in the weight room is starting to pay off; he’s dunking those drop-offs in his second year of college basketball and should be a consistent double-double threat the rest of his time in Rock Hill.
“When you’re kind of a complimentary piece last year on a really good team and your minutes are limited, that’s a hard role,” Kelsey said. “It’s hard in that role to get in a rhythm and get in a flow. And it’s hard to gain experience if you don’t get experience.
“This year, from Day 1, he was one of our main guys and he was gonna play through mistakes and play through bad stretches and good stretches. When that happens you gain more of a comfort level and your true talent comes out.”
These two teams’ games in recent years featured stormy momentum swings. Ball-handling carefully will be critical, especially for the Bulldogs. UNC Asheville is ninth in the Big South in turnover margin, a near 180-degree shift from 2016-17 that Winthrop super fan Jeremy Dunlap pointed out on Twitter Wednesday. Last season, the Bulldogs were 29th in the country in offensive turnover percentage, giving the ball away on just 16 percent of their possessions. This year, McDevitt’s crew is 294th (21.2 percent).
And the Bulldogs have slipped defensively a bit, too. They were 12th among 351 Division I teams last year in defensive turnover percentage, their voracious pressure forcing a turnover on 22.6 percent of their opponents’ possessions. But that has dropped to 19.4, 150th nationally.
Turnovers, especially of the pick-six variety that lead to a momentum shift, could be critical Thursday night with both sides capable of avalanche scoring bursts. Offensive basketball has been a hallmark of both programs while McDevitt and Kelsey have been in charge. That, and the teams’ success -- Kelsey has led Winthrop to a 50-20 league record since 2014, tops in the Big South, while UNC Asheville is right behind, tied with High Point, at 47-23 -- make their games natural picks for TV. Both of the Eagles and Bulldogs’ meetings last season were chosen by the Big South for national television and it’s no mystery why. The Big South wants to get its best teams on national TV so it was probably a smart move to get Winthrop and UNC Asheville on ESPNU again Thursday night.