Winthrop opened up a 23-4 lead on Asheville Monday afternoon, a 12-minute stretch in which the visiting Bulldogs looked rudderless.
Eight of the 11 Asheville players that contribute are freshmen, and that was evident as the Bulldogs missed their first 11 shots during a 66-45 loss to the Eagles (13-6, 5-1 Big South). There wasn’t a veteran guard to rally the Asheville team during a timeout huddle, like Winthrop has.
“It’s so hard to win at this level and guys just don’t know the level of preparation that goes into it, and the scouting, and how ‘on it’ you have to be,” said Winthrop senior guard Nych Smith, who led his team with 15 points. “To have a large group of guys that have been through that year in, year out, it’s just a whole different savvy when you’re playing a team full of freshmen.”
According to KenPom.com, the Bulldogs average 0.39 years of college basketball experience per player, the lowest in Division I. (Winthrop is 52nd out of 353 teams, at 2.11 years.) Of the available playing time in the Winthrop-Asheville game Monday, Bulldog freshmen played 190 of their team’s 200 minutes.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Herald
Losing six All-Big South-caliber players in as many years is a major source of Asheville’s inexperience.
“The transfers are why we are young,” said Bulldogs coach Mike Morrell. “That’s not an excuse, just the sheer fact of the matter.”
Keith Hornsby transferred to LSU in 2013. Andrew Rowsey left for Marquette in 2015. Dwayne Sutton and Dylan Smith led the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament as freshmen in 2016, Sutton earning Big South Conference tournament MVP honors. Not long after the season ended, Sutton transferred to Louisville and Smith departed for Arizona.
And after former coach Nick McDevitt took the head job at Middle Tennessee State this past offseason, Asheville’s two best returning players, MaCio Teague and Jonathan Baehre, plus two other players, followed McDevitt out the door. Teague signed with Baylor, while Baehre will play at Clemson.
In some ways, it’s a credit to McDevitt’s talent evaluating. But the result is a Bulldogs team that is 2-18 (0-6 Big South), and the last remaining Division I team without a win against Division I competition.
Perhaps fittingly, Asheville has a rookie head coach, too. Morrell came from Texas where he was usually on the receiving end of transfers like the ones that ravaged Asheville in recent years. He decided against pursuing transfers or junior college players, and opted instead for a complete rebuild.
“We decided to go with freshmen, knowing there would be a huge learning curve,” he said.
During the same years as Asheville’s talent exodus, Winthrop had just one major contributor transfer to a Power 5 school, 6-foot-8 shot-blocker Duby Okeke. He left after the 2017 season to play his final year of college eligibility at Nebraska. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Winthrop could have gone back to the NCAA Tournament last season if it had an interior presence and rim protector like Okeke.
But transfers are a part of modern college basketball and Winthrop has otherwise been fortunate.
Talented Aussie Xavier Cooks could have left Winthrop when Kelsey nearly took the UMass job in 2017. But the school and coaching staff had made a positive-enough impression on Cooks that he decided to finish his career in Rock Hill.
“I’m really big on loyalty and the coaches were so good to me that I couldn’t ever let them down,” he told The Herald last summer.
“Our mentality is to coach them like high-major players, and treat them like high-major players everyday,” said Kelsey. We love them.”
Winthrop has five seniors, including two of its most important players, Smith and Bjorn Broman. Smith had 11 of his 15 points against Asheville during the first half, and Broman added 12. Broman played in his 100th career game Monday, and hit his 200th career 3-pointer.
Veteran savvy helped the Eagles cope with Asheville’s zone defense, which slowed Winthrop’s typical sports car pace. Winthrop didn’t have its best shooting day, but grew a huge early lead thanks to a stingy defensive effort. It was nearly 12 minutes into the game when the visitors made their second field goal.
“I was wondering if we were ever gonna score there, for a bit,” said Morrell.
Winthrop had some offensive lulls in the latter stages of each half. Asheville played a zone that stretched beyond the 3-point line at times and made the normally speedy Eagles think carefully about how to attack. But Winthrop’s defense consistently smothered the Bulldogs, holding them to 31 percent shooting
Experience kept Winthrop’s defensive levels up even when it wasn’t scoring, and also helped the Eagles burst out of the starting gate, despite playing a game just two days earlier. Asheville also played Saturday, but didn’t have the same level of readiness.
“Guys know soon as the last one is over we have to turn the page, especially with the one-day prep,” said Smith. “It’s on us seniors to make sure guys are locked in.”