Moments away from the first official practice of the 2019 season on Thursday, players, coaches and others clapped in unison at the center of Winthrop Coliseum’s court.
The Eagles’ program stood shoulder to shoulder in that circle: There were seven new faces — four true freshmen, a redshirt freshman who returned to his hometown after a season at the University of Tennessee, D.J. Burns, and two other transfers.
There were the program’s old heads, including the team’s sole senior, Josh Ferguson. There were assistant coaches who’d later lead skill-specific drills; team managers who would later keep a running tally of assist-to-turnover ratios for each player; a self-identified “program supporter,” who said he hasn’t missed a Winthrop “first practice” in 12 years.
And then, standing in the middle of the circle was Pat Kelsey, the head coach entering his seventh season who has convincing reason to believe this team could be special.
The gym was still echoing with claps at center court when Kelsey started counting down. And on Kelsey’s signal, all the claps stopped.
Kelsey grabbed his practice plan, which was folded in his waistband, and raised his voice, soliciting occasional responses from his players as he spoke: “Our culture is about, No. 1, what? Relentless effort. That’s what I want all the time.”
After a minute or so passed, the group was led in a prayer, and the circle collapsed together for a pre-practice team huddle and a breakdown — one that marked the end of a summer of workouts and the beginning of a new season.
And then — officially — basketball was back.
Pushing the pace
In Thursday’s two-hour season-opening practice, there were two constants: a lot of noise and a high tempo.
In the first drill, players sprinted and wove in and out of lines like a personified assembly line, and each rep ended with a finish at the rim. In his first attempt, Burns slammed in a windmill dunk. Then, the team drilled niche scenarios: Defenders chased down ball-handlers from behind; players saved balls from going out of bounds; guards and bigs alike ran the length of the floor in fast break drills.
Again: everything was fast.
“A huge part of what we hang our hat on is our pace, how fast we play,” Kelsey told The Herald after practice. “Those guys know that you’re going to get chewed out if you’re not running from defense to offense.”
The practice grew more cerebral as it went on. Even though no codified plays were rehearsed, the game-like drills started simple and became more complex. As Kelsey later said, no individual seemed to lag behind the group.
“Everybody looked like they belonged out there,” Kelsey said, “which is what you want to see from those freshmen. They didn’t come in here wide-eyed and scared and nervous. They jumped right in, and went right at people.
“And our practices aren’t for the faint of heart. They’re very tough, competitive practices, and it’s just good to see those guys jump in there from day one.”
The afternoon concluded with a few final live-action drills and a post-practice breakdown with everyone who was in the circle two hours earlier.
Who and what to know
There are several things from Thursday’s practice worth noting.
For one, as aforementioned, the team’s freshmen seamlessly fit into Kelsey’s practice plan. Burns, who transferred from Tennessee this summer and who is a Rock Hill native, naturally commanded a lot of attention. The 6-foot-9, 285-pound lefty forward is among the highest-rated recruits in the Big South and will likely have a substantial role from the season’s opening tip.
The other newcomers made their respective marks too. Russell Jones, a 5-foot-5 point guard, battled for boards with the team’s bigs. Josh Corbin, the player who led the EYBL in 3-point field goals this summer, had the chance to show off his shooting stroke. Chase Claxton and Jamal King impressed in their own ways.
“You spend so much time with them in the recruiting process, you get to know their families,” Kelsey said. “You know, we’ve been doing workouts all summer and things like that, but to see them out here officially for the first time is a pretty exciting thing.”
Sophomore Micheal Anumba — who started every game as a freshman last season — junior Kyle Zunic and senior Josh Ferguson seem poised to take up the team’s mantle as leaders. Chandler Vaudin, a reliable forward for the team, didn’t practice but was vocal from the sideline.
Even though assistant coaches sprinkled in hints of Winthrop’s tough schedule -- the Eagles’ first four games are away, and they open the season at Hartford before traveling to Duke in mid-November and closing their out-of-conference slate against Elon on Dec. 21 — there was still a prevailing sense of excitement and optimism.
“The music of March Madness is still many months away,” Kelsey said. “But just to know that there are 352 Division I programs kicking it off today, it’s a pretty exciting thing.”