The Big South’s leading men’s basketball scorer, Campbell’s Darren White, tore a meniscus Jan. 5, ruling him out for up to eight weeks. Winthrop travels to Campbell on Saturday to face the Camels, who are a difficult proposition, even without White.
“My eyes are burning right now because I’ve been staring at my computer screen watching tape on these guys,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey before Thursday afternoon’s practice. “They’re very, very talented up and down their roster. Just like when we had some injuries early on, there are some guys who are extremely talented that may not have the opportunity because they’re playing behind a great player like that.”
Far from relieved that White won’t be available, Kelsey believes Robbie Laing’s team will be more difficult to pin down. Without White, who averaged 21.8 points per game and at times dominated the Camels’ offense, Campbell has a more varied attack.
“I don’t think they’re one iota less dangerous without him in the game,” said Kelsey. “They’re more dangerous because they’re gonna play with more freedom.”
White’s absence puts more pressure on Camels guard Trey Freeman, one of the best point guards in lower-major Division I hoops and the Big South leader in assists at 6.1 per game. Freeman shot 49 percent in the 11 games that White played and only 39.5 percent in the seven that he’s missed. Freeman’s a combined 14 for 41 from the field in the last three games without White.
But the 6-foot-2 sophomore guard, the Big South’s freshman of the year last season, has scored 16.5 points per game in conference play, suggesting “He’s perfectly capable of being an explosive scoring guard,” Kelsey said. “What this does is it allows him... to increase his scoring punch as well.”
Freeman is most threatening when weaving through the maze of ball screens the Camels employ to help him wriggle free of defenders. Winthrop post players spent practice time Thursday working on the finer points of defending Campbell’s high screening offense out on the perimeter. Freeman works the scheme so effectively, especially in drawing cheap personal fouls on big men 25 feet from the rim.
Kelsey said Freeman “has unbelievable court vision and sees things before they happen like all elite point guards do. But he also has the ability to score the ball, and he’s showing that now that Darren White has gone out.”
While Freeman has earned Winthrop’s defensive attention, others have emerged in White’s absence, notably 6-foot-6 swingman Reco McCarter, who has assumed a starting role. He’s averaging 10 points per game in the three games since White injured his knee in Campbell’s triple overtime win over Gardner-Webb earlier this month.
After a winless first three games in the Big South, Kelsey felt that Wednesday’s win over Presbyterian saw his team return to the defensive mentality that’s proved imperative.
“Our ferocity on the whole end was better,” he said. “Our energy was better. We were better in our gaps, we were better off the ball, we were more locked in and aware, ball pressure was better. I think we did too much standing around against VMI. We were so worried about them getting threes that we forgot about what makes our defense really good.”
Campbell had won five in a row before falling to VMI 76-57 on Wednesday night. The Camels were outscored 49-24 in the second half, allowing VMI to knock down 7 of 10 threes during those 20 minutes.
When Campbell faces Winthrop Saturday, the Camels will be going up against another team eager to dictate the flow of the game. But Winthrop will try to slow them down, hedging carefully on screens to keep Freeman from bossing the game with the ball in his hands. Campbell is the top shooting team in the league, hitting over 45 percent from the field, but makes just 3.9 threes a game, last in the Big South. Accordingly, 65.6 percent of the Camels’ scoring comes from two-point range, the fourth highest percentage in the country.
Saturday will be another test for the Winthrop pack line defense, which will hunker in like a phalanx and force the Camels, absent their best scorer, to try and beat them from the perimeter.