For the first time in almost a month, the Winthrop men’s basketball is playing a home game as the favorite. After 26 days in the underdog wilderness, the Eagles face a team Sunday in Hampton University that, at least on paper, they should beat.
Not so fast. Winthrop players and coach Pat Kelsey slammed the brakes on the notion of taking Hampton lightly.
“We were in the position once where we were going into the gym and people weren’t taking us serious and we got some big wins,” sophomore Derrick Henry said last Thursday. “We definitely know that we can’t underestimate anybody. We still have to stay humble, and we still have to play hard.”
Hampton is 2-8, as coach Edward Joyner, Jr. has seven freshmen on the roster and nine newcomers total after losing four starters and his top two scorers from last season. That inexperience has undoubtedly told. Six of the Pirates’ eight losses have been by 10 points or fewer, including an eight-point defeat to Ohio and a five-point loss to Wofford, both teams Winthrop faced.
“They may be the longest, most athletic team we’ve played to this point,” said Kelsey. “They’re long at every position; they’re very athletic at every position. They have the capability of playing volleyball on the backboard with their length and athleticism. They’re a very good defensive team.”
Perhaps befitting of a school that provided the NBA with Rick Mahorn, Hampton leads the Mid-East Athletic Conference (MEAC) in rebounding, and is also one of its best defensive clubs, due in part to the bothersome length Joyner’s club employs. The Pirates, who beat Winthrop 45-44 in the two teams’ last meeting in 2010, have a very similar makeup to the Eagles in that both squads lean on defensive effort to compensate for offensive shortcomings. Hampton is shooting just 38 percent from the field this year, and only 25 from three-point range.
Defense creates offense for the Pirates. This season, Hampton is blocking 14.6 percent of opponent’s shots, 19th nationally, thanks in large part to Du’Vaughn Maxwell’s two blocks per game. They are also ranked 46th in the country (KenPom.com) in turnover percentage, forcing turnovers on 24 percent of its opponent’s possessions. Every year, the Pirates harry and harass opponents into bad offensive decisions. That’s been a particular weakness for Winthrop.
“We have to get better at our ball security and our decision making, and they’re really gonna challenge us in that regard,” Kelsey said. “Our readiness and our preparation will be paramount over the next couple of days.”
With only three days to prepare due to the Christmas break, Winthrop will have to concentrate to avoid a slip-up that would negate any snowballing positive momentum from an excellent December. The Eagles have won three out of their past four games, their best run since January of last season, shooting 44 percent from the floor during that stretch, while holding opponents to just 36 percent.
Junior Joab Jerome averaged over 11 points and close to six boards in the past four, after only scoring in double digits once in the first six as he struggled to shake a nagging injury.
Point guard Andre Smith has improved his assist-to-turnover ratio to 16:7 in the four-game stretch, after dishing out 11 assists to 15 turnovers in the first six. Smith’s seven-assist, two-turnover outing against Auburn last week was his best game of the season.