Winthrop faces High Point on Saturday at 2 p.m. in the two schools’ Big South Conference men’s basketball opener. The Panthers come to Rock Hill with a three-game winning streak over the Eagles and are sporting the league’s best frontcourt duo – John Brown and Allan Chaney.
Brown is the Big South’s second-leading scorer at 19 points per, while Chaney is chipping in 13 points. Together they represent the Eagles’ toughest defensive challenge in the paint.
“It’s as talented a front-court as we’re gonna play all year,” said Pat Kelsey after Winthrop’s Friday practice. “They complement each other so well, it’s almost like fire and ice.”
High Point (5-7) thumped Appalachian State 86-64 on Nov. 13. Since then, coach Scott Cherry’s club has dropped four straight, true road contests. But they’ll pull up to Winthrop Coliseum with little or no fear, in large part because of the 6-foot-7, 200-pound Brown.
“He’s a high energy guy all the time, every day, every practice, every game,” said Cherry. “He’s very involved in the game in a lot of different categories.”
Brown, a redshirt freshman who sat out last year while the NCAA clarified his academic eligibility, leads the league in offensive rebounds per game (4.1) and fouls drawn per 40 minutes (7.6, 8th nationally). He’s also second in scoring (19.1), third in blocked shots (1.9) and seventh in rebounding (7.1). One final telling stat: 33 percent of High Point’s possessions end with Brown touching the ball, the seventh highest percentage in the country for an individual player.
Then there’s Chaney. He originally attended Florida before transferring to Virginia Tech. A life-threatening heart condition forced him to nearly give up basketball, but he was cleared to play this year after seeking a second opinion and found a home at High Point. Chaney can do it all – put the rock on the floor, drive, pass, and shoot from distance with a feathery touch. He’s also second in the conference in free throw percentage, knocking down 88 percent of his foul shots.
“You can’t find too many 6-foot-9, 230- or 240-pound guys that have the skill level he has,” Cherry said. “We’re lucky to have two front-court guys that can do the things that they do.”
Winthrop’s post players have a big task ahead, but the Eagles’ defensive scheme – a sagging man-to-man defense – should enable them to make things difficult for the visitors. The goal is to deny entry passes to the post if possible, though Chaney and Brown are able to step away from the bucket to get the ball. Should they catch it in the paint, the Eagles’ big men will try to wall up Chaney and Brown, while help defenders harass and pester the two into turnovers, kick-outs or contested shots.
Winthrop (6-6) has had success forcing opponents to rely on 3-pointers, and High Point only makes 26 percent of those, last in the Big South. Threes only account for 18.7 percent of the team’s scoring, 321st nationally (out of 347), and over 60 percent of the team’s scoring comes from two-pointers, so it’s really no mystery where Winthrop will focus its defensive efforts.
“We got to limit them at the box,” Kelsey said, “the 12-by-12 box around the basket is what we got to muddy up. We got to limit John Brown’s touches there ... and make the floor sticky around him.”
High Point’s 3-point shooting could be one of the deciding factors. If the Panthers can knock down shots from outside, Winthrop will have to stretch its defense.
“We have guys that are capable of making them,” said Cherry, who was a member of North Carolina’s 1993 NCAA championship team. “This team, confidence is a huge deal. When you miss a couple in a row your confidence drops. It’s just a matter of getting back in the gym and having confidence in your shooting.”
Devante Wallace, a 6-foot-5 sophomore guard, just got eligible during the semester break and could be a shooting threat for High Point. He shot 40 percent on 3-pointers last year, but has only played in two games so far this season. Italian swingman Lorenzo Cugini is another marksman (10-26, 38 percent) who the Eagles will have to defend.
High Point’s 76-74 win over Austin Peay on Dec. 29 snapped a four-game losing streak, three of which were decided by seven or fewer points. As Cherry pointed out, his team is a couple of plays away from being 8-4, or 7-5. Saturday’s game quite likely will also come down to several plays, as Winthrop tries to pack in defensively and High Point seeks to force the Eagles out of their stifling shell.
“If you look at the statistics, Winthrop has done a tremendous job of making teams shoot from the perimeter,” said Cherry. “It’s one of those games where something’s got to break. We gotta either get the ball inside and use our size to score around the basket, or make perimeter shots.”