How will Winthrop basketball make up for lost star power?
Winthrop opens the 2018-19 men’s college basketball Nov. 6 in Nashville against Vanderbilt, the first of at least 30 games the Eagles will play this season. Pat Kelsey’s team was picked to finish second in the Big South Conference preseason poll and have 10 regular contributors returning. Here’s what you need to know about the Eagles, and the larger Big South:
Who is Winthrop’s star?
For the first time in about five years, Winthrop doesn’t have a recognizable star on its roster, a guy to give the ball to at the end of a game and get the heck out of the way. Xavier Cooks got the ball on 31.9 percent of the Eagles’ 2017-18 possessions (19th in the country) and was the team’s leading producer in almost everything. He’s the school’s all-time leading rebounder and shot-blocker, and he’s gone.
Winthrop returns experience and depth in abundance. Senior guards Adam Pickett and Bjorn Broman and sophomore guard Kyle Zunic will need to elevate their statistical contributions in every category. All three shot 37 percent or better from 3-point range last season, and all three have the potential to be leading players for Winthrop.
“As a coach, when you have veteran guards it gives you a sense of confidence,” Kelsey said back in October.
“Offensively, we’re very skilled,” said Pickett. “Lot of shooters, lot of guys getting downhill, offensively we’re sound.”
Joshua Ferguson, the 6-foot-8 junior named second team preseason All-Big South, gave plenty of indications last season that he can be a very good player.
The reality, though, is that this team will have to win games with offensive execution, stingy defense and energetic bursts of play from a number of different players sitting farther down the bench. And supporting Ferguson with ample rebounding help throughout the lineup will be critical.
Who is new?
Micheal Anumba is the lone brand new scholarship player that will get on the court this season. He’s a well-built freshman forward from Italy, by way of London, and expected to contribute immediately.
“He’s a 6-foot-5, 220-pound wing with great instincts,” said Kelsey. “A credit to his coaches back home, he has a great awareness on the court, a great feel. Picks up stuff very fast.”
Chandler Vaudrin is also new, but the 6-foot-7 point guard will have to sit out this season after transferring from Division II Walsh University (Ohio). He’ll be a key contributor in practice and should also enhance the team’s facial hair reputation.
Redshirt freshman guard Keondre Schumacher will be eligible to play this season after sitting out last season and speedy senior guard Nych Smith is back after missing the second half of last season with academic issues. Winthrop will also have a handful of new non-scholarship players after graduating four senior walk-ons.
Interactive: explore this 360-degree Winthrop men’s basketball team photo (seriously, spin it around with your finger or computer mouse) and click on the icons to learn more about its players and coaches:
Are there any breakout candidates on the Winthrop roster?
When asked this question at the Big South Conference basketball media day, Kelsey mentioned Charles Falden and Nych Smith.
Falden shot over 50 percent from 3 last season as a freshman, but his game minutes plummeted late in the season. He played four total minutes in the final four games. At 6-foot-3, Falden gives Winthrop a little more size in the backcourt, useful on both ends of the floor. If he can elevate his defensive production, he’ll be on the court much more regularly.
Smith averaged seven points and two assists per game in the 14 contests he saw action in last season. He’s turbo-charged pushing the ball up the court.
“Charles has had a really good preseason,” said Kelsey. “And Nych, he adds such a dynamic piece to our team because of his scoring ability, his ability to get to the basket and get to the paint, something that when he went out last year, we lost.”
What about the big guys?
This was Winthrop’s big weakness last season, and is probably even more of one entering this season. There is considerably more pressure on Ferguson’s shoulders now that Cooks is playing pro ball in Germany. Ferguson averaged 10 points and seven rebounds per outing last season, and it wouldn’t be a huge stretch for him to boost his average to double figures in both stats.
Seniors Jermaine Ukaegbu and Austin Awad are both back. Ukaegbu provides bouncy energy and Awad is a streak 3-point shooter that will need to contribute more inside.
If one or both of Raivis Scerbinskis and Tom Pupavac could show improvement, it would give Winthrop a huge, and mostly unexpected, lift. Scerbinskis, the 6-foot-8 Latvian with a pretty nice outside shooting touch, began to get game action a bit more last season, while Pupavac played sparingly. The 6-foot-11 Australian probably would have redshirted had Duby Okeke not transferred to Nebraska. Pupavac still needs to get bigger, thicker, physically.
“Coach (Jayson) Gee is in charge of our bigs and Tommy is kind of his pet project,” said Kelsey. “(Pupavac) locked arms with Andy Parker, our strength and conditioning coach, and he was texting Andy pictures of his meals all summer.”
Did Liberty leave the Big South?
Yes, the Flames joined the Atlantic Sun Conference in every sport except football. Hampton and USC Upstate joined the Big South, taking the league’s teams to 11. It’ll be interesting to see if Upstate, based in Spartanburg, develops a rivalry with Winthrop.
What else is new with the conference?
High Point hired Tubby Smith. Only Gregg Marshall would come remotely close to challenging Smith as the best coach to ever grace the Big South. Smith is three wins from 600 for his career and he’s also a national championship winner (1997, Kentucky) and has led his teams to 18 NCAA tournaments. It’ll be very interesting to see how he adjusts to coaching in a one-bid league where the talent level is lower than any of his previous stops.
Is Chris Clemons, that guy from Campbell that scores, like, 30 points a game back for another year?
Which team is the Big South favorite?
Defending Big South champ Radford topped the preseason poll, which was a good thing because it meant that the Highlanders’ highly self-deprecating coach, Mike Jones, gave the keynote speech at the conference’s basketball media day in mid-October. He was funny, called himself the ugliest person in the room, but he also pointed out how many capable teams there are in the league this season.
Twelve of Radford’s 18 Big South games were decided by single-digit margins, and it’s 15 if you count their three Big South tournament wins. Jones’ team chiseled away at opponents, then made key plays in the final moments. They return Carlik Jones and Ed Polite Jr., the two best players from last season’s team. Thus, they are the favorites. But the way they won games sure makes it feel like a more explosive team could get them in the tournament next March.
Winthrop was voted second in the preseason poll and returns 10 contributors, while Hampton joined the conference from the MEAC and is a regular low-major contender to make the NCAA Tournament. Campbell returns the preseason player of the year, Clemons, who is one of the league’s best-ever offensive talents, and High Point hired arguably the best head coach to ever grace the league in Tubby Smith.
Can this Winthrop team get to the NCAA Tournament?
Yes, but it won’t be easy. Winthrop has experience, perimeter depth and scoring and should be pretty good defensively. The biggest question mark is whether Winthrop will get enough production out of its post players. Ferguson is a candidate to average a double-double, but after him it gets questionable fast. That puts heavy pressure on Ferguson to stay out of foul trouble, and also on the other players on the court to attack the backboards and rebound aggressively from their various positions.
Like past seasons under Kelsey, this team should play fast.
“We’re gonna push the ball,” said Broman. “Got a lot of guards and our bigs, they run as well. I don’t think teams are gonna be ready for our pace. That’s been an emphasis. When their legs get tired, we’re just gonna keep going and take it to them.”
The Big South is a one NCAA Tournament bid league, so Kelsey’s team just has to get hot at the right time in early March. If it can maintain consistency during the Big South regular season and win hosting rights for the tournament, that would be a huge boost to the Eagles’ NCAA tourney hopes.