Welcome to the beginning of March Madness. Before we get started in earnest, allow me to introduce you to what will soon become your second-favorite college basketball team.
I know you have your college allegiances already, and I’m certainly not asking you to sever those. But you’re going to really like this bunch from Winthrop – and they just might make you look smart as an upset pick in your NCAA tournament bracket, too.
In one of those mid-major conference tournaments where it desperately matters who wins, Winthrop won the Big South Sunday at home in the Winthrop Coliseum.
The Eagles had to get over the hump of the Campbell Camels to do it (sorry, I had to do it). And Winthrop did so with a 5-foot-7 point guard who is their best player, a skinny big man with a delightful Australian accent and a rare “storm-the-court” moment in Rock Hill.
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“The screensaver on my computer is the 2007 championship game,” Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said afterward, referring to the last year that Winthrop made the NCAA tournament by winning the final game of the Big South tournament on its home court. “It’s what I’ve dreamed about since I took the job here. I’ve come to graduation and every seat is filled. I would look around and say, ‘What would it be like for a basketball game to have that type of atmosphere in the city of Rock Hill?’”
They had it Sunday afternoon, as a sellout crowd of 5,109 watched Winthrop return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. Winthrop (26-6) was the No. 1 seed this time and beat a tired Campbell team, 76-59.
Winthrop had finished second in this same tournament the past three years in a row. Think about that. Three straight years of feeling like the Carolina Panthers did when they lost the Super Bowl. Three straight years of “lonely locker rooms,” to use Kelsey’s phrase. Because in a one-bid league like the Big South – which has the cool tradition of allowing the highest-seeded team in its tourney final to host the game – you either win the conference tournament or you don’t play in the NCAA tournament.
‘Just not in his DNA’
So 5-7 senior Keon Johnson – the Player of the Year in the Big South, Winthrop’s all-time leading scorer and a fearless driver who gets banged to the floor a dozen times a game – has never played a single second in the NCAA tournament. He was going to go oh-for-his-career if Winthrop didn’t win Sunday.
Johnson doesn’t like to talk in front of a group. “That’s just not in his DNA typically,” Kelsey said.
So in the pregame, Kelsey – who doesn’t mind talking a bit – was attempting to fire up the troops as usual. Said the coach: “I’m trying to give my Knute Rockne and Keon goes: ‘I’ve got something to say.’ And I was like ‘Whoa! Go ahead, man.’”
Johnson didn’t say anything that profound, but what amazed everyone was that he said anything at all.
“If you aren’t old enough to remember the E.F. Hutton commercials, Google them,” Kelsey said. “When E.F. Hutton talked, people listened. Keon is a man of very, very few words. He’s been that way since he got here. And when he talks, the room stands still and guys lean forward.”
“Protect your brothers at all costs,” Johnson said. “That was the main thing that I discussed. I just wanted to pour that into each and every one of them.”
A 13 or 14 seed?
Winthrop held Campbell scoring phenom Chris Clemons (who had 51 points in one game in this tourney and 33 in another) to 29 points this time on 9-for-27 shooting.
Xavier Cooks, Winthrop’s 6-8, 185-pound forward from Australia, had 17 points and 14 rebounds. Winthrop was never seriously challenged and got to thoroughly enjoy the postgame court-storming, which no one even pretended to try to stop.
Said Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan, whose team was trying to make one of those crazy runs from a No. 7 tournament seed to an NCAA berth: “We needed to have an A-minus game to have a chance. We were probably in the C-plus range.”
Winthrop wasn’t perfect, either, but the Eagles are pretty darn good. Having a senior point guard as your leader always helps, and Winthrop has enough good three-point shooters that the Eagles could pull off an NCAA tourney upset if they get hot.
With an RPI hovering around 70, I foresee the Eagles getting a seed in the 13-14 range. I could even see them matched up against Duke in a first-round matchup March 17 in Greenville, S.C.
Kelsey has experienced 11 previous NCAA tournaments himself as a player and an assistant coach. He badly wanted to get all these guys to feel what it’s like at least once.
“It’s big time,” he said. “The biggest of big time. And I’m just so excited that these guys get to experience that.”