In knocking off Ohio and annoying the heck out of Ohio State in its last two games, Winthrop’s men’s basketball team laid out a blueprint for success. The Eagles were able to frustrate opponents with superior talent into defensive, 10-rounders, and went 1-1 in the process.
“That’s gonna be kind of who we are,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey Wednesday before his team’s noon practice.
Winthrop’s offensive stats aren’t pretty. They rank 322nd in NCAA (out of 347) in assist-to-turnover ratio, turn the ball over on 25 percent of their possessions and are only shooting 29 percent from beyond the arc.
Winthrop’s three established post players – Shola Diop, James Bourne and Steve Johnson – have combined to attempt 63 field goals this season, while the Eagles’ starting backcourt of Andre Smith and Derrick Henry has taken close to 170 combined shots. For a team struggling offensively in the halfcourt, shooting from distance is much easier than working the ball into the paint for closer looks at the rim.
While the Eagles want to sleeper-hold the opposing team’s offensive opportunities with clock management and relentless defense, there is a caveat. Teams that struggle offensively need to get as many easy baskets as possible, so after every defensive stop, Kelsey has afforded his players a seven-second leash to take any opportunities that present themselves. If nothing easy manifests, the Eagles pull the ball out and run a halfcourt set.
“It kind of motivates them a little bit to get stops,” said Kelsey. “Once people play us in the halfcourt, we want to make them sit down and guard us. That’s just more conducive to us being successful.”
The Ohio and Ohio State games illustrated that gameplan beautifully. The Eagles only allowed 57.5 points to the Bobcats and Buckeyes and were able to dictate the pace of the game against two likely NCAA tournament teams.
Saturday evening, the Eagles will try to do that again against Auburn (5-5). The Tigers have won three straight, dropping Grambling State, Furman and Tennessee Tech for a so-far undefeated December. The trio of wins snapped Auburn out of a four-game losing funk, during which they fell to Dayton, Boston College, Rhode Island and Dayton.
Tony Barbee’s club is spurred by scoring guards Frankie Sullivan and Chris Denson, who just returned after missing the first seven games because of academic issues. Sullivan and Denson combine to score over 32 points per game for the Tigers, and Denson’s return has given Barbee’s backcourt an attack-minded scorer off the ball. The Tigers were 2-5 without him, but have won all three games since his return, in which the junior is shooting 63 percent from the field. Denson is averaging 1.23 points per possession, which would rate second in the country had he played in enough games to qualify.
“You add him to the mix and that makes them that much more dangerous,” said Kelsey.
The 6-foot-2 guard is typical of the talent at a big school like Auburn, even if the Tigers’ record isn’t all that impressive.
“They’re a prototypical SEC team,” said Kelsey. “They have great length, great athleticism, they have several potent weapons offensively and they play downhill and they play fast foremost, but the thing that surprised me most is their ability to execute in the halfcourt as well.”
Kelsey said he expects to see some zone defense from Barbee’s crew, which shuffles its looks throughout games to try and confuse opponents. The Tigers rank in the top 100 in six of KenPom.com’s primary defensive categories.
“They change often, they change out of timeouts, they change on free throws,” said Kelsey. “So we’re gonna have to work on that.”
Picking apart a zone with passing and movement is the best way to break down that defense, but shooting over it is the easiest. 43.2 percent of Winthrop’s field goal attempts are three-pointers, eighth most nationally, while 35 percent of the team’s scoring comes from beyond the arc (28th in the country). Additionally, the Eagles are second-to-last in the country in assists per made field goal (3.8 assists for every 10 buckets). So far, Winthrop’s offense has been a perimeter-reliant, create-your-own shot system, though not by design.
In Auburn’s three-game winning streak, Grambling, Furman and Tennessee Tech combined to shoot 10-for-58 from three-point range. Kelsey’s team will have to go back to the blueprint it drew up during the Ohio trip, and try to avoid falling into the easy trap of hoisting three-pointers if they want to make it two wins out of a challenging three games.