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One Last "Tune-up"? Winthrop, Off To Best Start In 30 Years, Might Just See It That Way

Off to their best start since 1980-81, Winthrop looks to bolster its tournament resume with a high-profile road win tonight. The Hokies will look to avoid such a slip up (at least conference prestige-wise). For more on the Eagles, read below.

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

The Winthrop Eagles play in the Big South. That doesn't afford them many opportunities to prove themselves for the Selection Committee. Oh, lets not delude ourselves with the notion that the Eagles could actually earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Even if they went undefeated, it might be difficult to gain the necessary traction to be an at-large entry out of the Big South. So, since we know that Winthrop already needs to win the Big South, this game's importance to the Eagles lies in its potential for an improved seeding in March. Perhaps with a road win over an ACC school, the Eagles can rest easy as a 14 or 15 seed, instead of being relegated to the play-in games that precede the tournament.

The Hokies would like to think this game should qualify as a final "tune-up" before the real season begins, but the facts are these: Since 1999, the Winthrop Eagles have gone to nine NCAA Tournaments, even winning a game once, while the Virginia Tech program has gone to just one tournament. Granted, the Hokies play in a more competitive league, but they also have had more chances to redeem themselves. Winthrop has won the games it has had to win. The Hokies can't say that. In paying Winthrop their due respects, however, I still have to favor the Hokies tonight based on their size and talent.

Winthrop is off to their best start since 1980-1981 when they begin 8-1. They certainly look like they have improved on 2011's 12-20 mark that got coach Randy Peele fired. Some of us might remember Coach Peele because "Peele spent three seasons under Ricky Stokes in Blacksburg before leaving and spending a season away from coaching." Just watching Stokes made me want to take several years away from watching, I can't imagine being a part of that on the day-to-day. Peele made two tournaments at Winthrop with former coach Gregg Marshall's recruits before faltering on his own. Marshall is now leading Wichita State to Final Fours, after having directed seven Winthrop squads to the tournament. All of the Eagles tournament teams bear Marshall's imprint.

The new coach, Pat Kelsey, is a former Skip Prosser disciple. He used to captain the Xavier team and followed Prosser to Wake Forest where he coached for eight seasons and assisted in recruiting the likes of Chris Paul and Jeff Teague. He went 14-17 in his first year with Winthrop, and is positioned to contend for the Big South title this season. Though his team is 5-1, they are technically only 3-1 as the RPI is only recognizing three of the wins. The Eagles lone loss was in Richmond to Virginia Commonwealth. The game was decided at the FT line, and can be explained by the following quote I poached from the Winthrop Eagles website:

"They shot 48 free throws, but that's as many as I've seen a team shoot in all my years of coaching and that's a credit to what I call their assault on the paint," said Winthrop head coach Pat Kelsey. "They are absolutely downhill attacking the basket every time they touch it. That's in transition. That's in the half court. They were constantly putting pressure on you and we didn't do a good enough job of crowding the floor and moving our feet and keeping them out of the paint."

This sounds like a game-plan Coach Johnson might want to adopt considering our size advantage. We certainly don't want to get into the transition/three point shooting battle with this team. They shoot 41% from three-point range, and Coach Kelsey's mentality is to get up and down the floor with a smallish back court. Here are some vitals on their eight-man rotation:

Starter Andre Smith JR 5'10"/170 (28.5 mpg) .526 from 3 (20-38), .882 from line, 14.2 ppg ...2.8apg...

Starter Joab Jerome SR 6'5"/195 (25.7 mpg) .600 from 3 ...12.7 ppg

Starter Keon Johnson FR 5'7"/160 (23 mpg) 13.2 ppg, 14-of-30 from 3pt...

Starter Larry Brown JR 6'6"/210 (20.5 mpg) 4.5, 2.7rpg

Starter James Bourne JR 6'8"/240 (21.5 mpg) 7.3ppg, 5.3rpg

Tevin Prescott SO 6'5"/180 (19.7 mpg) 8.8ppg, 4.2 rpg ..67.7fg%

Brandon Vega r-JR 5'10"/160 (16.7 mpg ) 4.8ppg, 3.5apg

Josh Davenport FR 6'5"/200 (14.2 mpg) 6.2ppg, 3.2rpg

The Eagles are sparked by a very small back court, and while Adam Smith should be OK on defense, it will be incumbent upon Devin Wilson to stay in front of Andre Smith. Our two guards also need to be aggressive offensively and attack the paint the same as VCU did. It should lead to plenty of easy buckets and put backs for our big men to capitalize on. I'd also like to take special time to point out that their fourth guard, Brandon Vega, does a lot with his limited time on the floor. The difference in the Seton Hall game was arguably their backup guard (Sina) who hit four three-point shots in about four minutes of game time in the first half. We need to be aware of other teams' change of pace guys.

For the Hokies we have C.J. Barksdale and Jarell Eddie looking to extend double-double streak, with Eddie looking for his fourth straight. The other big question of the night is whether Cadarian Raines has practiced his way out of Coach Johnson's doghouse.

Mark Berman of the Roanoke Times is reporting that Ben Emelogu may miss his third-straight game due to post-concussion syndrome. My question is: Did Ben suffer a second concussion? Or if it was symptoms of his first still prevalent over a month after the original? The answer to this would provide us an idea for an expected return. The longer he remains out, the more I think it was his second concussion. And that would be bad news.

Couple of notes here on the Ratings Percentage Index, which I will include from time to time until if would officially be a joke for me to continue providing them:

  • Presently the Hokies are #116, Winthrop #49
  • The Hokies have the #69 Strength of Schedule, #8 Michigan State on there helps.
  • The Hokies have one bad loss (Seton Hall); amazingly USC-Upstate doesn't qualify as a bad loss. But on Winthrop's RPI, their win over USC-Upstate is categorized as a good win. I'll never figure this stuff out.
  • The Hokies have a lot of high quality RPI games on their schedule remaining. Winthrop will face #13 Dayton, which will undeniably weaken as the year progresses.

Here are a few historical/trivia notes, since Winthrop is once again boring me with their collection of trivia. Once again my famous alumni segment has been thwarted.

  • Winthrop is located in Rock Hill, SC. That is about 25 miles SW of Charlotte, and an hour NE of Columbia, SC.
  • The last meeting between the two teams was in 1998, VT won the game 62-55. Both teams came in at 4-4, the Hokies won, but finished 13-15 in Bobby Hussey's final year. Winthrop lost one more game then ran off 12 wins in a row, and wound up making their first NCAA Tournament.
  • Winthrop's best year was 2007 (also VT's last NCAA trip). The Eagles finished 22nd in the polls and won their first round game as an 11 seed vs Notre Dame. Gregg Marshall left for Wichita State after the tourney.
  • Common opponents this season: USC Upstate, Radford, VMI
  • Winthrop is home to the US Disc Golf Championship. Frisbee Golf is a fun alternative. First rule: Take turns carrying the cooler, I usually volunteer for the back nine, it seems to be lighter for some reason.
  • Notable Alumni: Not even really alumni, but actress Andie McDowell attended for two years. The rest include a lot of foreign-born MLS Soccer players and one middling major league baseball pitcher (Kevin Slowey). That's it. The last three games have submarined my favorite segment, I can't wait to resume this when we begin to face some real schools.
  • Winthrop has not had a player make it to the NBA.

Tonight's game tips at 7 p.m. at Cassell Coliseum, and is once again televised on ESPN3. As I understand it, tonight is Christmas Store Night, so if fans attending can bring a new or unwrapped (their words) toy to the game to donate to the Montgomery Country Christmas Store that would be looked upon with universal thanks. It is my most sincere hope that everyone is having a happy, safe, holiday season. I will be back with the post-game and intend to be on Twitter tonight during the game posting updates/thoughts. Please join us @GobblerCountry for complete Hokie basketball coverage.

As always, mi Cassell es su Cassell.