Scott Fowler

Is there a win in Winthrop? Eagles get their shot Thursday

Winthrop's Keon Johnson (5) is only 5-foot-7 but is the school’s all-time leading scorer. He will lead his Eagles against Butler in the NCAA tournament Thursday.
Winthrop's Keon Johnson (5) is only 5-foot-7 but is the school’s all-time leading scorer. He will lead his Eagles against Butler in the NCAA tournament Thursday. AP

Winthrop has a chance to steal a small piece of America's heart over the next few days.

The 13th-seeded Eagles also have a better chance to fade quickly away into the twilight. It all depends on how this weekend turns out, starting with Thursday's 1:30 p.m. NCAA tournament game against No. 4 Butler in Milwaukee.

Winthrop checks most of the boxes in the category of “Beloved Underdog.” The Eagles have an incredible -- and incredibly short -- fearless point guard in 5-foot-7 Keon Johnson, who averages 22.5 points and is the school's all-time leading scorer.

They have an affable and talented Australian big man (Xavier Cooks), two blond brothers from Minnesota (the Bromans) and an up-and-coming head coach in Pat Kelsey who sometimes brings his adorable 3-year-old son to news conferences .

The problem is that Winthrop now must win. There are many teams with similarly interesting back stories in every NCAA tournament, and most of them get eliminated and are on the plane flight home before the tournament's first weekend even begins.

Butler, Winthrop's first-round opponent, is a fearsome foe. Butler beat overall NCAA tournament No. 1 seed Villanova this season -- twice! Winthrop has won eight games in a row, though, and enters Thursday's game with confidence as the Big South champion.

Said Kelsey: “I think we're a good team that is firing on all cylinders at the right time of year. ...They accept their roles with a smile on their face. ...It all leads to some great possibilities, so we'll see.”

Winthrop used to make the NCAA tournament regularly under coach Gregg Marshall, who was there from 1998-2007, but it is only 1-9 in its tournament history. That lone victory came 10 years ago, against Notre Dame. Winthrop then lost its next game, so the Eagles have never survived the NCAA tournament's first weekend.

Kelsey is a former point guard at Xavier and a protégé of Skip Prosser, the late Wake Forest coach . He employs Prosser's son Mark on his staff and said he thinks of Skip Prosser every day.

“Coach Prosser was like a walking ‘Seinfeld’ episode,” Kelsey said. “He would say things like ‘If you don't miss a flight every now and then, you're spending way too much time in airports.’ Or: ‘Recruiting is like shaving - you do it every day or you look like a bum.’

Although this is Kelsey's first trip to the NCAA tournament as a head coach, he has gone to 11 others as an assistant coach or a player. If his team could stick around awhile this time, America’s sporting public can discover where Winthrop is and grow to really, really like Keon Johnson.

But all of that depends on whether Winthrop can pull off an upset. The odds are against the Eagles, but the odds are never what the NCAA tournament is really about.

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