Winthrop just made a three-game winning streak look as easy as it did a three-game losing streak before that. So, after taking a deep breath and letting the late night caffeine fade, here are four takeaways from the Eagles’ spanking of UNC Asheville on ESPNU.
The atmosphere felt like a conference tournament game
Thursday night’s game was played in the kind of atmosphere that makes Winthrop employees and diehard fans wonder, “why isn’t it like that all the time?”
Winthrop has a unique student body makeup and it will never be a sports-centric school like in the SEC. But its basketball games should draw better from the student body than they usually do.
Why they don’t is a totally different 2,000-word-long story. But Thursday night showed the impact that a completely full end of The Coliseum can have. When the lights went out during introductions, student cellphones illuminated one complete end of the arena, giving Winthrop standout Xavier Cooks goosebumps.
“I was nervous,” he said. “I haven’t felt nervous in years. It was just a cool environment out there.”
Luke Kuechly’s video imploring students to turn up must have helped. Kuechly, the Carolina Panthers’ star linebacker, is from Cincinnati and he and his parents are diehard Xavier basketball fans. He recently struck up a friendship with former Xavier player and coach Kelsey, whose familial chromosomes are probably all X’s, and Winthrop’s coach called in a favor this week.
Kelsey only has so many favors to call in, though. And Winthrop is fortunate to have a coach willing to undertake marketing efforts like this one when he otherwise could be preparing for a huge game. Does Winthrop’s sports marketing and student activity departments have to undertake this kind of effort for every home game? The reality is, probably, yes.
Winthrop ball movement sizzled
Winthrop players had a goal of 275 passes for Thursday’s game and they hit 325. The point isn’t passing for passing’s sake, but to get an easier, more open look at the basket. The Eagles did that repeatedly against Asheville, continuing a trend that’s really taken hold in 2018.
“People just found everyone,” said freshman guard Kyle Zunic. “We were just playing as a unit. We’re starting to feel each other and know where each other want to be.”
Since conference play began, Winthrop is assisting on nearly 60 percent of its field goals:
Keon Johnson’s departure has changed the way Winthrop scores its points. The program’s all-time leading scorer rightly dominated the ball at times last season. The Eagles had only one game in 2016-17 in which five different players scored in double figures.
They’ve already had eight such games this year.
This current group has a tool belt of different scoring options. Xavier Cooks is obviously the focal point, but Anders and Bjorn Broman, Josh Ferguson and Adam Pickett have all picked up the scoring slack this season. Austin Awad is good for a 3-pointer or two off the bench and freshman Chuck Falden enters every game looking to get buckets. At least four players have hit double figures in 14 of Winthrop’s 18 games this season, compared to just seven times in 33 games last campaign. That balance makes Winthrop very difficult to stop.
Winthrop is a title contender, again
Sounds like a dumb thing to write considering the Eagles were picked second in the Big South preseason poll. But a three-game losing streak in conference play showed some serious flaws that needed sorting out if Winthrop wants to get back to the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year.
Some of those weaknesses have been addressed, at least for now. It’s almost funny to think that basics like rebounding and defending were glaring question marks just a few weeks ago. The Eagles have won each of the last three rebounding battles, topping 40 boards in each game, and they’re holding opponents to 24 percent shooting from 3-point range in that same stretch.
The question is whether Winthrop is the team of the three game winning streak or the three-game losing streak? We’ll have to wait for the true answer on that one, but the most recent indicators are positive.
“We’re pretty good offensively,” Kelsey said. “When we play with that type of effort on the defensive end and we rebound, we’re a pretty darn good team.”
Winthrop players and coaches would maintain they never lost faith, but it was reasonable to question their credentials in the first half of January. Following key wins over Gardner-Webb and UNC Asheville, the Eagles need to avoid slipping in the coming week during road games at Presbyterian and Longwood.
Xavier Cooks is kicking into top gear
Cooks had plenty of jokes for his fellow Australian, Zunic, who was involved in his first American press conference after Thursday’s game.
Zunic was a novel pick by reporters, who are asked before the end of each game which players they want to talk to. But Cooks would be a justifiable pick every time.
Since 1992-93, just two players in the Big South Conference have averaged at least 16 points, nine rebounds and three assists per game, VMI’s Reggie Williams and Cooks. Williams went on to enjoy a decent career in the NBA and games like Thursday night make it seem a certainty that Cooks will also enjoy a long pro career, though at which level and in which country is the question.
That’s in the future, though, and in the present, the 6-foot-8 Aussie is carrying the Eagles by doing some of everything. He’s consistently scored this season -- double digits in every game but one -- and his rebounding has been critical for a Winthrop club lacking post depth.
His dribble drives into the lane suck in defenders, leaving open cross-court passes to 3-point shooters. It’s fair to say that a Winthrop offense built around Cooks’ array of abilities is working out just like Kelsey would have wanted.