Thump... thump... thump.
That was the sound of folks jumping off the Winthrop mens basketball bandwagon after blowout losses to Virginia Commonwealth and Wofford, according to Eagles coach Pat Kelsey. Thursday, he encouraged his team to keep its blinders on and worry solely about improving, especially as Winthrop (2-3) embarks on a difficult December slate that starts with a road test Saturday at James Madison (1-5).
It sounds cliché, but were taking it one game at a time, Kelsey said Friday. Were focusing on going up to Harrisonburg and making sure were really, really prepared for tomorrow at 4oclock.
Four of the Eagles next five games are on the road. After heading to JMU, Winthrop hosts Brevard on Tuesday. Theyll take a week off from competitive action for exams and then face Ohio, Ohio State and Auburn, all on the road, over a seven-day stretch (Dec. 15-22).
But Kelsey and company are focused on the immediate task, taming the Dukes in Harrisonburg, Va. Saturdays contest pits two teams really needing a win, especially JMU which has lost three straight after its only win of the season, against Youngstown State on Nov. 20. JMU is undoubtedly better than its record reveals though, having lost to Duquesne by two points in overtime, and George Washington by one on Wednesday.
Theyre an extremely talented team, said Kelsey. Forget their record; you watch them on tape. Pure talent-wise theyre gonna be one of the most talented teams we play against.
Winthrop will need to play solid, compact defense against a team that can shoot from distance, but prefers to score in transition or in the paint. Rayshawn Goins, a 6-foot-6, 265-pound post player, leads the Dukes with almost 15 points and over eight rebounds per game, and his high-level skill set will be a legitimate challenge for the Eagles big men.
Hes their starting center, but hes as good a one-on-one player weve played this year, at the five, said Kelsey. Whether its in the post or catching the ball in the mid-post or the top of the key, hes got more moves than a U-haul.
The Eagles will also need to start better than they have in lopsided losses against Virginia Commonwealth and Wofford. In those games, Winthrop fell behind at halftime 48-26 (VCU) and 42-19 (Wofford). Neither team in Saturdays matchup has been fast out of the gates: JMU has been outscored in the first half of games this season by a combined 70 points thru six games; Winthrop has been outdone in its first halves by a combined 51 points (non-Division I games excluded). Starting quickly, or at least not digging a six-foot deep pit, will be crucial Saturday on the road.
Its paramount, said Kelsey. On the road you have to have that. We challenge our guys to have a readiness from the first tick of the clock. You cant afford, especially with the team we have, to dig yourself a hole. Weve talked about it, and will continue to.
JMUs quick hands cause opponents problems, a potential issue for an offensively unsure Winthrop squad. The Dukes Alioune Diouf and Andre Nation are two of the best ball thieves in the country, both averaging over two steals per game, while the Dukes get steals on 12.7 percent of opponents possessions. Winthrop has a 21:46 assist-to-turnover ratio this year, partly indicative of an offense struggling to execute its sets in the half-court.
There are some statistical silver linings for Kelseys bunch: Opposing teams are shooting 41 percent from 3-point range and 54 percent from the field in general against the Dukes, mouth-watering numbers to a Winthrop team still looking for its first win over a Division I opponent this season. If the Eagles are to get a difficult month off to a positive start, and perhaps silence some of that intrusive thumping, theyll need to convert JMUs statistical weaknesses into reality.
• Reggie King has been cleared to return to play, and practiced with the team this week. King, a 6-foot-2 senior guard from Novelty, Ohio, was shut down indefinitely in August when a problem with his heart arose during a checkup. King hasnt done any physical activity since then, so wont be able to contribute to the team until he gets his fitness levels up to par.
Theres some parameters on what he can and cant do conditioning-wise, said Kelsey. Were just gonna ease him in slowly. Hes participated in practice a little bit more every day in practice until he can build his cardiovascular condition up to where he can sustain some minutes in a game. Hes definitely not there yet; were not rushing him. But were glad to have him back.
• Keon Johnson, a 5-foot-8 guard, signed his National Letter of Intent last week to play basketball next year for Winthrop. Johnson, from Mansfield, Ohio, joins Chukwudubem Okeke (6-foot-8, Jonesboro, Ga.) and Josh Davenport (6-foot-4, Cincinnati, Ohio) in Pat Kelseys first recruiting class. Johnson, a scoring ball-handler, should help establish the point guard position as one of Winthrops best next season, alongside sophomore Andre Smith and junior Brandon Vega, currently out for the year with a torn ACL.
Kelsey described Johnson as smaller in size, but obviously very fast, quick with the ball. He has the ability to score the ball as well. Keon can really shoot the ball.
• The game, to be played at the Convocation Center in Harrisonburg, Va., will tip at 4 p.m. and can be heard on WRHI AM 1340/FM 94.3. The radio broadcast will start at 3:30 p.m.