After an offseason spent worrying about his health, Winthrop women’s basketball coach Kevin Cook was delighted to talk with reporters on Monday about basketball.
Winthrop was picked second in the Big South Conference preseason voting by coaches and select media. The Eagles likely would have topped a strength of schedule ranking, with a non-conference slate including Oklahoma and Duke - the first two games of the season - as well as South Carolina and Auburn.
Cook, who had a successful brain operation to help relax his Parkinson’s disease tremors, grinned when asked about his team’s brutal non-conference schedule, saying, “I can’t wait to get the Big South portion of it.” Cook hopes that the schedule doesn’t crush his team’s confidence, instead preparing the Eagles for a Big South run. He’s feeling optimistic about his team’s shot at making a second NCAA tournament in three years.
“I’m excited about our whole team,” said Cook. “I wished the season started tomorrow.”
Part of the confidence stems from having a pair of preseason first team all-conference selections in 6-foot-3 center Schaquilla Nunn and junior forward Erica Williams. Williams led the Eagles in scoring last season with 16.4 points per game, and led the conference in scoring in conference games at 18 per outing. Nunn has improved every year to the point of averaging a double-double last season and winning the league’s defensive player of the year with record-breaking numbers of blocked shots. Nunn, the team’s only senior, was personally recruited by Cook when he was an assistant to Marlene Stollings.
“We’re very blessed to have those two in our program and they’ve been just as delightful of people off the court, as they’ve been warriors on the court,” said Cook. “I can’t believe it’s Schaquilla’s last year. Time has flown by. She has just taken her game to another level and she’s working harder than she’s ever worked.”
Cook is excited to pair 6-foot-3 freshman Arianne Whitaker with Nunn and Williams.
“She’s just a strong player,” he said about Whitaker, a conference freshman of the year candidate from Ohio.
Key for Winthrop’s women will be getting production from the backcourt, something that’s lacked since the graduation of Dequesha McClanahan two years ago. Redshirt Aliyah Kilpatrick looks fully healthy from her knee surgery two years ago and has her burst back, a huge fillip on both ends of the court. Cook said Kilpatrick’s first step is as good as WNBA All-Star Sheryl Swoopes’ was.
Kilpatrick will again be the Mother Hen to a trio of sophomores - Naima and Nuba Jackson and Jimecheia Banks. The second-year guards will be relied on more heavily this winter to shoulder some of the scoring burden not replaced since McClanahan’s departure, as well as beginning to replicate their high-scoring high school ways at the college level. None of the three averaged more than 1.6 points per contest last season.
“I think all three of those sophomores will step up,” said Cook. “A lot of our success will depend on how they do.”
Winthrop has the usual hurdle in its way in Liberty, picked to win the league in the preseason for the 18th year out of 19.
“The conference crown always goes through Liberty,” said Cook, “and we’re poised to do so.”
Seated at a table in a downtown Charlotte hotel ballroom, Winthrop’s fourth-year coach commended his team’s work ethic through the first several weeks of practice. He said his players have done everything that he and his new-look staff - Carlotta Kloppenburg and Marvin Harvey joined as assistants - have asked.
“I’m not saying how good we’re gonna be,” Cook cautioned. “But I am saying that they’re sold out. And when you’re sold out, you can accomplish some special things.”