Success will come for the Winthrop Eagles on the road Saturday at Radford if they maintain their inner Mozart. Should their minds begin to race against the Highlanders active defensive pressure, their inner soundtracks rev up to Motorhead or Motley Crue, Pat Kelseys Eagles could have a long afternoon.
Radford leads the Big South Conference in steals per game with 9.8, good enough for 10th nationally, and Mike Jones team also forces turnovers on 23.2 percent of opponents possessions, 52nd in NCAA mens hoops. Consider Radford a lesser version of their in-state neighbors Virginia Commonwealth, who brought Havoc to Rock Hill earlier this season in a 90-52 whooping of the Eagles.
Winthrop turned the ball over 21 times in that early December loss to VCU, and was giving the ball away an average of over 14 times per game in non-conference action; in the past six conference games, that mark has been whittled down to 11.6. The Eagles need to maintain that improvement Saturday against the aggressive Highlanders defense.
They play a pressure style of basketball, said Kelsey. They turn you over at a really high rate, they pressure the ball, they get out in passing lanes.
He added: We talk about playing with classical music in our heads; when you see pressure sometimes you hear that heavy metal music, you get sped up and you start doing things you normally wouldnt do.
Radford was a combined 11-50 the last two seasons, due in part to an NCAA investigation that led to the ouster of coach Brad Greenberg, the erasure of wins and sanctions. But a pair of tumult-filled campaigns are in the past as the Highlanders have returned to respectability thanks to Jones. They sit in the midst of the Big South Conference race with a 3-3 conference mark and a 9-11 record overall. The reversal of fortunes under Jones is no surprise to Kelsey.
Coach Jones is a good friend of mine and a very good coach and hes done a great job of turning the program around, he said Friday.
Helping lead Radfords renaissance is a sophomore backcourt pair that is already one of the best in the league. 6-foot-4 Javonte Green and 6-foot-2 R.J. Price combine to average over 27 points per game, with Price operating primarily on the perimeter and Green inside the three-point line. Price is shooting 39 percent from the three-point arc, leads the league in triples made per game (3.0), and is averaging over 17 points per outing in the past six games.
Hes sort of the straw that stirs the drink, Kelsey said, using one of his favorite compliments. Hes an explosive scoring guard every time he touches the ball.
Winthrops coach was equally concerned about Green. He shoots 50 percent from the floor, leads the league in steals and offensive rebounds, and is one of the primary sources of Radfords on-court electricity.
Hes a really, really high motor guy, said Kelsey. Hes just a guy that were gonna have to match his energy, keep him in front of us and box him out.
After a leaky start to league play, the Eagles have tightened up defensively. Winthrop allowed 70-plus point in its first three Big South games, all losses, but in the past three has limited Presbyterian, Campbell and Gardner-Webb to an average of 56.3 points. Maintaining an even keel helped Winthrop shake off the first three losses and crawl back up the league standings.
Our guys have done a good job, and youve heard this word a thousand times this season, weve done a good job of staying consistent, Kelsey said. We started off the league 0-3 and we didnt panic. We just showed up the next day of practice and we did what we do we practice hard.
Selective amnesia is critical in January conference play. Practice and preparation are also paramount, especially with the games coming fast every three days.
Its the dog days of the season because its two days of prep, game; two days of prep, game; two days of prep, game. So, I think that the routine and the consistency with which we continue to operate will help us prepare quickly for these games, said Kelsey.
Part of that routine included leaving 35 minutes after Friday mornings practice for the trip up I-77 to Radford. Headphones covered players ears from the icy precipitation. Its a safe bet there wasnt any heavy metal blasting into their eardrums.