College Sports

Winthrop picked to win Big South Conference

Winthrop men’s basketball coach Pat Kelsey was quick to downplay his team’s unanimous selection to be the Big South champion.
Winthrop men’s basketball coach Pat Kelsey was quick to downplay his team’s unanimous selection to be the Big South champion. Special to The (Rock Hill) Herald

Team media guides were put to good use Tuesday at the Big South Conference’s men’s basketball media day.

The league is largely unrecognizable from last season, Winthrop aside. The Eagles return 13 of last season’s 15 players and were picked unanimously by media and coaches as the league’s preseason favorite, though coach Pat Kelsey was quick to downplay the honor.

“We’re not going to treat our closed scrimmage this weekend any differently,” he said, “just like we’re not going to treat Ferrum on the 12th any different than Asheville in February, or the tournament.”

Being named preseason favorite does little to assuage the Eagles’ hurt at finishing runner-up for the third straight year in the conference tournament.

Winthrop looks as well-positioned as it has under fifth-year coach Kelsey to make the breakthrough and reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. The Eagles sport two of the conference’s top three returning scorers in Keon Johnson and Aussie Xavier Cooks, both first-team preseason All-Big South selections. Johnson, a 5-foot-5 scoring machine, was named the league’s preseason player of the year, the first Eagle to earn that distinction since Torrell Martin 10 years ago.

“I’m just grateful, appreciative of the respect because I just want to earn it,” said Johnson, an Ohio native who could threaten Winthrop’s career scoring record this season. “That’s the only way I’m going to try to get it, is earn it.”

UNC Asheville loses star freshmen to transfer

That Winthrop was able to retain so much of its 2015-16 talent is an accomplishment in itself. Transfers were rife throughout the conference, especially at reigning champion UNC Asheville, which lost two standout freshmen – Dylan Smith and Dwayne Sutton – to Louisville and Arizona.

Marquette, LSU and now Louisville and Arizona have enticed key players away from UNC Asheville the past four years. Asked if it was a bittersweet situation, Bulldogs coach Nick McDevitt laughed.

“I don’t know if it’s sweet,” he said.

McDevitt’s 2015-16 team lost its best player in a transfer to Marquette, before gradually gelling and peaking last March thanks in part to the two largely unknown freshmen, Smith and Sutton, who was the tournament final MVP.

“When you have a young team, you’re going to be drastically different in March than you are in November,” said McDevitt. “If they’re not worn out and beat up by the end of the year, you’ve got a chance to hopefully be pretty good.”