My 2017-18 Big South Basketball Predictions

As Media Day approaches in a little over a week (Oct. 24), I realized that I need to get on the record about what I think will happen in the Big South this season:

Regular Season Standings Prediction:

  1. UNC Asheville (14-4)
  2. Winthrop (13-5)
  3. Liberty (12-6)
  4. Radford (10-8)
  5. Gardner-Webb (10-8)
  6. Campbell (9-9)
  7. High Point (8-10)
  8. Charleston Southern (6-12)
  9. Longwood (5-13)
  10. Presbyterian (3-15)

My predictions probably aren’t too off from what most other people are predicting.  UNCA had a very good season last year, and they return almost all of the key parts, so they are a natural pick to finish on top.  I won’t be shocked if either Winthrop or Liberty finish in first either, but beyond those three, I would not expect anyone else to be hosting the quarterfinals and semifinals of the Big South Tournament.  I probably have Radford a little higher than most, as I think their point guard play should be improved, and they had some dangerous outside shooting at times last year, along with very good rebounding, and just about the whole roster returns.

Big South Tournament Prediction:

First Round:
#8 CSU over #9 LwU
#7 HPU over #10 PC

Quarterfinals:
#1 UNCA over #8 CSU
#5 GWU over #4 RU
#6 CU over #3 LU
#2 WU over #7 HPU

Semifinals:
#1 UNCA over #5 GWU
#2 WU over #6 CU

Championship:
#2 WU over #1 UNCA

I’m probably being a bit of a homer, but I think Winthrop will get better as the season goes along as the new players in the lineup start clicking with the returnees.  Will that be enough to lead the Eagles to a win at Asheville to get into the NCAAs?  I think so.

Big South Awards Predictions:

Player of the Year: Xavier Cooks, Winthrop
Freshman of the Year: Carlik Jones, Radford
Defensive Player of the Year: Ahmad Thomas, UNC Asheville
Coach of the Year: Pat Kelsey, Winthrop

1st Team All-Conference:
Xavier Cooks, Winthrop
Ahmad Thomas, UNC Asheville
Chris Clemons, Campbell
Christian Keeling, Charleston Southern
Ed Polite, Radford

2nd Team All-Conference:
MaCio Teague, UNC Asheville
Ryan Kemrite, Liberty
David Efianayi, Gardner-Webb
BK Ashe, Longwood
Jo’Vontae Millner, Presbyterian

All-Conference Honorable Mention:
Andre Fox, High Point
DJ Laster, Gardner-Webb
Kevin Vannatta, UNC Asheville
Isaiah Walton, Longwood
Carlik Jones, Radford

All-Freshman Team:
Carlik Jones, Radford
Phlandrous Fleming, Charleston Southern
Juan Munoz, Longwood
Kyle Zunic, Winthrop
Ja’Cor Nelson, Campbell

Advertisements

One Month Away

The college basketball off-season can feel like an eternity at times…depending on how far your team went in the postseason, you have somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 months between your final game of last season until your opening game of the new season.  For Winthrop, we last saw the men’s basketball team on the court in the NCAA Tournament against Butler back in mid-March.  But now we’re only a month away until the 2017-18 season opener, as WU will host Southern Illinois on Friday, November 10.

But even with the season only a month away, there are plenty of unknowns with this particular Winthrop team, as only five scholarship players on the roster have ever played a minute for the Eagles in a regular season game before.  And aside from a few teaser videos that the WU Athletic Department has released, and some preseason write-ups from national publications (the most detailed being the Blue Ribbon Yearbook), we still don’t really know much about how this team will come together, which of the newcomers will contribute right away, and what the ceiling of this year’s squad can be.  I’m not going to rehash all of things I already said in my Summer Update post, but I figured I should start predicting how I think the rotation may shake out, at least at the start of the year.

On opening night, when WU takes the court at the Winthrop Coliseum against the Salukis, who will be the starters?  Xavier Cooks is a definite, and Bjorn Broman has started 51 games in his career already, so you’d have to think he’ll be on the court at the opening tip as well.  Anders Broman spent most of last season coming off the bench, but he seems like a natural choice to take the Rod Perkins spot in the starting lineup.  The final two spots are more up in the air, though.  Josh Ferguson will likely join Cooks up front, as he had some good experience as a freshman last season, and I doubt that Coach Pat Kelsey wants Xavier Cooks to have to defend opposing 5s too often this season (though I won’t be surprised to see some lineups that have Cooks at the 5 at times, but probably not to start a game).  The final starting spot could go to a few different players.  If Kelsey opts for experience, then Adam Pickett could be the choice.  However, Pickett seems to fit the role of ‘energy off the bench guy’ pretty well, so will that formula change this season?  Freshman Kyle Zunic seems to be getting some buzz in some preseason publications as a possible breakout young player for the Eagles, and he definitely has the international experience to make you believe that he may be ready for D1 hoops from Day 1.  But my guess for the final starting spot goes to JUCO transfer Nych Smith.  Smith is capable of shooting from outside, but he also attacks the basket well and can play the floor general role, allowing for the Bromans to spot up from outside.  He also has a bit of D1 experience already from his freshman season at Fordham, so he should be prepared for the level of play he’ll see on opening night.

It’s hard enough to predict who the starting five will be when the season starts, but trying to figure out the rest of the rotation is nearly impossible due to all of the new names on the roster.  I mentioned them above, but Pickett and Zunic (if not starting) should see plenty of playing time in the backcourt.  Freshman Charles Falden should also be a part of the guard rotation, as he had very impressive numbers in his prep season at Massanutten Military Academy last year.  JUCO transfer Jermaine Ukaegbu has enough athleticism and versatility to make me think that he’ll find a decent amount of minutes, especially if he is picking up the defensive scheme well.  And freshman big Tom Pupavac brings some depth up front, especially if Ferguson or Cooks get into foul trouble.  I struggle to predict how young bigs will do, as the transition to college basketball is often tougher for them than it is for guards, but he should get some opportunities due to the lack of other post players on the bench.

As of now, I’m having a little harder time fitting freshman Keondre Schumacher, JUCO transfer Austin Awad, and redshirt freshman Raivis Scerbinskis into the rotation.  But then again, I haven’t seen any of these new guys play, so it won’t surprise me if I’m wrong about any of this.  Awad and Scerbinskis seem to be a pair of guys who could provide some shooting off the bench if needed, and at 6’6″ and 6’8″ respectively, they could help stretch opposing defenses and create matchup problems when on the floor.  But given the minutes that Cooks will get, and Kelsey’s tendency to play 3 (or even 4) guards, it is hard to see exactly where those two will fit in.  Schumacher appears to have a good combination of outside shooting and ball-handling, so I’m not doubting his ability, but he’s the least experienced player in the guard rotation, so I find it difficult to figure out his immediate role on the roster, but I could have said the same thing about Keon Johnson 4 years ago, so you never know.

Please bookmark this post, as there’s a good chance you can read it in a couple of months and laugh about how wrong I was.  That’s part of the fun of a team with so many new players on it…I can have my assumptions of how things may play out, but there are sure to be plenty of surprises once we see the team in action early in the season; especially as we haven’t gotten too many indications about how things have gone in the early preseason practices yet.

 

The Big South and Liberty

In the media cycle, dropping a press release late on Friday afternoon is a good way to get a message out without anyone every noticing it.  And that’s what the Big South did this past Friday, dropping a release updating the Liberty situation.

What’s the Liberty situation?  Well, back in February, Liberty announced that they got approval from the NCAA that their football program can move up from FCS to FBS without having an FBS conference home.  Therefore, the Flames are transitioning their football program, where they will be an official full-fledged FBS program by 2019, and could possibly qualify to compete in exciting games like the New Mexico Bowl, or even the Miami Beach Bowl.  What was left unclear back in February was the status of Liberty’s other sports.  Big South bylaws state that if you are a member of the Big South, then all of the sports you field must play in the Big South (unless the league doesn’t field your sport, such as in Field Hockey or Swimming/Diving).  Schools can get a waiver on this requirement, and there is a precedent, as Campbell fields a football team, yet has not been competing in the Big South (their non-scholarship program has played in the Patriot League, but will be transitioning to full-scholarship status soon, and will be moving to the Big South next season).  So would the Big South vote to approve a similar waiver for Liberty?  Well, the answer is…kind of.

In the Big South’s Friday release, they say that Liberty will continue to field teams in the Big South in 17 sports (M&W basketball, M&W tennis, M golf, M&W Cross Country, M&W Indoor & Outdoor Track/Field, Baseball, Softball, W Lacrosse, W Volleyball, and M&W soccer), but that the school will be considered an associate member in those sports beginning with the 2019-20 season.  What does that mean?  I can’t say I know all of the implications with that shift from ‘full’ member to ‘associate’ member.  Those sports will continue to compete in the Big South, and will be eligible for conference championships and NCAA berths.  So in that sense, nothing changes.  But if Liberty isn’t a full member anymore, are they able to vote (or even have a voice) in league-wide issues?  Is there a financial impact?  And while full membership is seen as semi-permanent, associate membership is usually an agreed-upon limited time arrangement.  So is this a two-year deal?  Four-year deal?  Indefinite?  Even if it is a two-year deal, I’m sure both sides can agree to extend it when the time is up, but if it is temporary, does Liberty have to pay a fee if they bail on it (because if they get an FBS conference invite, you know they’ll leave as soon as they hang up the phone)? Would the Big South not extend the agreement if the league gets a new member or two to fill Liberty’s spot?  Those are questions I can’t answer, and I’m not sure if the answers will ever be publicly known.

Since February, I was hoping that the Big South would deny Liberty’s waiver request and just cut ties with the Flames after this year.  I just did not see why the relationship with LU should continue.  How does it benefit the Big South, and specifically, how does it benefit Winthrop?  Maybe the league office likes having the Flames in tow, but why should any of the Presidents of the other nine Big South schools vote to keep them around?  I never really heard a compelling argument why they should stay.  Why do the other Big South schools need them?  The Flames will eventually use their increased visibility and $$$ from being FBS (isn’t that the reasons they want to play at that level) as an advantage in recruiting to their other sports (I’m sure it won’t be coincidental when they bring all of their prospective basketball recruits to their home football games against UVA or Wake Forest)?  The league already has enough remaining members to keep NCAA bids in all sports (though football is the least equipped to handle the loss of LU, but that’s already a lost cause).  Someone will still have to represent the league in the NCAAs in these other sports, even if Liberty is gone, so how does it benefit the individual schools if Liberty remains?  The road to NCAA berths get a bit easier as the school with a huge budget advantage leaves the landscape.  That huge budget allows Liberty to fully fund Cost of Attendance stipends for all sports, giving the Flames a huge leg up in recruiting battles.  Yes, that may seem a bit defeatist, but Liberty works within a financial paradigm that is mostly foreign to the rest of the league…why continually try to compete with a school that throws COA money to every athlete?  Their big spending doesn’t help any of the other members, so it isn’t like their absence will weaken anyone else’s programs.  Maybe this is petty, but Liberty has spent many many years making it publicly clear that they were looking to get out; so why not accommodate them now when they’ve taken the first big step out the door?

Well, when the rubber hit the road, the Big South Presidents apparently weren’t willing to cut Liberty completely loose.  So for what reason?  This is all speculation on my part, but I have to think that losing membership is just something the rest of the league doesn’t like to see…they see it as a sign of weakness and vulnerability.  But as I said before, it isn’t as if Liberty is in it for the long haul, so at some point, the league will need to deal with the loss of LU, whether it is now, or in 2-3 years.  Is it a sign that maybe the league is worried about losing other schools?  Is Presbyterian in danger of moving back to D-II?  Maybe the other Presidents see the writing on the wall with that, and want the temporary insurance of having Liberty around.  Maybe there’s more going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about?  Maybe the Big South has a financial incentive to keep the Flames in the league?  Liberty has a big incentive to keep their non-football sports in a conference, so maybe they were willing to pay for that right?  We’ll probably never know the true reasons why this waiver was somewhat granted (again, Liberty is losing its ‘full’ member status, whatever that means), but it will be interesting to see how long this relationship continues.  We all know that Liberty will leave as soon as they can, but will the Big South ever completely cut them off before that happens?

 

WU MBB Non-Conference Schedule Announced

Yes, I’m still alive…unfortunately, I haven’t had much to say, but WU men’s basketball decided to announce its non-conference schedule today, so I figured I’d give my quick impressions of it:

Nov. 10 – Southern Illinois (interesting matchup at home against a mid-level MVC team)
Nov. 14 – @ Colorado State (I think this marginally has some involvement with the ‘Jamaica Classic’ Tournament, but WU isn’t going to Jamaica, and I don’t see where WU has any other real involvement with the event…but a cool trip for the team against a decent MWC opponent)
Nov. 18 – Central Penn (HOMECOMING)
Nov. 21 – Mars Hill (back to back non-D1 games)
Nov. 24 – @ Auburn (Good to see WU head back to Auburn…they are an improving SEC program)
Nov. 26 – SC State (They haven’t been very good lately, but I like seeing these in-state matchups)
Nov. 29 – @ Furman (Should be a good game…Furman was good last year, should be good again this year)
Dec. 2 – Reinhardt (the third non-D1 game, and last home non-conf game…long stretch until next home game)
Dec. 5 – @ Georgia (another SEC opponent…never quite know how good UGA will be from year to year)
Dec. 16 – @ Alabama State (a return game after ASU played at WU two years ago…they were bad last year)
Dec. 19 – @ VCU (New coach for VCU, but they should be good as always…probably the best team on the schedule)

I never like to see 3 non-D1 teams on the schedule, but I know that helps fill out the home slate.  SC State and Alabama State aren’t very good on paper, but the rest of the D1 opponents are solid, and all should be at least 150 or better in RPI…WU should be capable of beating any of them, but there won’t be many easy wins either…all in all, not bad, just hard to get excited about the home slate, but I’m used to that by now.  I’d assume that the full schedule will be released soon, as the Big South should be closed to finalizing the conference slate.

Life After Keon – WU Basketball Summer Update

After taking a few days to digest the loss to Butler and to soak in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, I began to write a detailed blog-post about the WU team heading into next season, and to determine just what this program will look like when Keon Johnson isn’t on the court anymore.  Then, as I was in the middle of writing the post, Pat Kelsey took the UMass jobthen came back to WU a couple of days later.  Around that same time, Duby Okeke and Patrick Fisher both transferred out of the program.  So I took some time away from looking forward to next season as half of the roster was up in the air, and I was still trying to digest the whole Kelsey/UMass story.  But things have settled down over the last couple of months.  Kelsey didn’t jump ship to another job as some people worried he might do.  And the program finished up signing its recruiting class in April & May.  So we now at least know the names of the people on the roster (even if there may be a lot of questions about how the pieces will fit together, and which of the new guys will be able to contribute right away).

As a quick recap, WU lost five scholarship seniors from this past season’s team.  Besides Keon Johnson, WU needed to replace Josh Davenport, Rod Perkins, Tevin Prescott, and Hunter Sadlon on the roster.  Keon is obviously the headliner, but Davenport, Perkins, and Prescott all played right around 20 minutes/game.  Sadlon’s value to the team was primarily in practices.  Also, as mentioned above, Duby Okeke and Patrick Fisher decided to transfer, with Okeke landing at Nebraska, and Fisher heading back home to play at San Diego State.  Okeke didn’t play huge minutes for WU, but his size/presence in the paint on the defensive end was big for the Eagles at times.  Fisher barely played in his freshman season due to illness.

Returning Players (Roles Already Defined):
This first group of players are the three guys expected to return who have been key parts of the rotation already, so we have a pretty good feel on what they can (or can’t) do…

-Xavier Cooks, senior – Most programs that lose a Keon Johnson-type of player would be panicking about who they will turn to for buckets the following season.  Luckily for WU, Cooks will be back for his senior season, and he was already a ‘1b’ to Keon’s ‘1a’ when it came to who was the primary weapon on the Eagles this past season.  Cooks is as versatile as it gets for a 6’8″ player, and his production on the boards had a decent uptick this past year to where he’s now a regular double-double machine, especially against Big South foes.  The offense runs through him at times anyway, and I’d expect that to increase a bit next season.  As long as he can stay on the court (avoiding injuries and foul trouble, personal and/or technical), he’ll put up numbers that will put him in the running for Big South Player of the Year.  The interesting scenario will come with end-game situations.  Keon Johnson was the focal point almost every time WU needed a bucket late in the game.  Will Cooks take over that role?  Or will that go to someone else (or be handled by committee)?

-Anders Broman, senior – I will admit, I was a little skeptical when Coach Kelsey brought Anders into the program after he had a couple of rather nondescript seasons at South Dakota State.  But after about a month of adjusting to being back on the court again, he was a key part to WU’s offense this past season, often hitting big buckets late in games to lift the Eagles to wins.  Obviously his biggest strength is his spot-up three point shooting, but he showed a few flashes of being able to get buckets off the dribble, something we may see a little more next season.  He’s not one of the better defenders on the roster, though, and that will keep him off the court at times, but we’ll likely see big minutes for him in his senior season, and he has a decent chance at being the team’s second leading scorer behind Cooks.

-Bjorn Broman, junior – In his first two seasons, Bjorn averaged 27.9 minutes/game.  That’s more than Keon Johnson averaged in his first two seasons, and more than Xavier Cooks.  In fact, from what I can tell, you have to go back to Chris Gaynor to find a WU player who averaged more minutes in their freshman/sophomore seasons.  That is to say, Coach Kelsey is comfortable with putting Bjorn on the court.  Bjorn’s biggest contributions in his first two seasons have been in handling the ball, taking some of the allowing Keon to conserve some energy at times, and in being a pretty solid perimeter defender.  His shooting numbers improved from his first year to his second, but there are many games in which he doesn’t take many shots, and oddly, he seems to shoot much better on the road than at home (after scoring double-figures in his first two home games of his freshman season, Bjorn has only scored in double-figures once in his last 30 home games…yet he has nine double-digit scoring games on the road in his career).  Expect they younger Broman to continue to get plenty of minutes, but it will be interesting to see if he becomes a bit more assertive, and more potent, on the offensive end this season with Keon gone.

Returning Players (Roles Expected to Expand in 2017-18):
These three returning scholarship players will likely play bigger roles on the team than they have in the past.

-Adam Pickett, junior – In two seasons, Pickett has been a feast or famine type of energy guy off the bench.  Some games, he’ll come in, make a few steals, get in transition, and make some impressive finishes around the basket.  In others, he’ll turn it over a couple of times, commit a couple of fouls, and never be seen again.  When he plays well, he’s a very dynamic weapon for the Eagles on both sides of the court.  He should get an opportunity to play more minutes this year, provided that he can limit the turnovers that lead to easy baskets on the other end.

-Josh Ferguson, sophomore – Ferguson had some nice moments as a freshman, especially early in the conference schedule when he got quite a bit of playing time off the bench.  He showed a pretty good shooting touch (especially from the free throw line) and looked willing and able to battle on the boards.  Like most young players, he hit a bit of a wall as the season went along, and WU relied more on the steady veteran presence of Tevin Prescott as the calendar turned to February and March.  But he should be able to bring some decent size and athleticism to WU’s front-court this year, and with Prescott and Okeke no longer around, he has every opportunity to earn plenty of playing time.

-Raivis Scerbinskis, freshman – Scerbinskis is essentially a newcomer, as he redshirted last season and has not played a minute of Division I basketball yet.  But the one advantage he holds over the group below is that he has spent a whole season practicing with the team, learning the system, and adjusting to life away from Latvia.  At 6’8″, he should be able to stretch the floor for the Eagles with his shooting ability, but it remains to be seen what else he’ll contribute to the team.

Newcomers:
This is one of the largest incoming classes in recent WU history, with seven new scholarship players joining the roster for the 2017-18 season.  If WU wants to return to the NCAAs, you’d have to think that at least a couple of these guys will need to be able to make an immediate impact.  I won’t pretend that I know much about any of them, or even begin to guess where they’ll fit into the rotation this season.

-Jermaine Ukaegbu, junior – Ukaegbu spent his freshman season at Sacred Heart, playing about 7 minutes a game before leaving to play his sophomore year at Indian Hills Community College (a JUCO power that essentially has an entire roster of players that will end up playing D1).  His offensive numbers won’t wow you, but he appears to have great athleticism, can rebound well, and should help fill some of the shot-blocking void left by Duby’s departure, even though he’s ‘only’ 6’6″.  (Ukaegbu’s YouTube Highlights)

-Nych Smith, junior – Like Ukaegbu, Smith also has spent his season at the D1 level (at Fordham), and then played last season at the JUCO level for Florida Southwestern State.  Smith’s a 5’10” point guard that has the ability to score (15 ppg last season) and pass (almost 6 apg last year).  Of all of the newcomers, I’d guess that he’ll be the most ready to contribute right away. (Smith’s YouTube Highlights)

-Austin Awad, junior – Awad is also coming to WU from the JUCO ranks, as he spent the last two years at Eastern Florida State.  At 6’6″, Awad brings some height to wing, and likely will be a shooter off the bench, as over 80% of his shot attempts last season were from three.  He averaged over 10 ppg and 5 rpg as a sophomore (after averaging 7 ppg and 5 ppg as a freshman), shooting around 37% from three in his two seasons at EFSC. (Awad’s YouTube Highlights)

 

-Keondre Schumacher, freshman – Coach Kelsey loves combo guards, and the 6’0″ Schumacher seems to fit the description, as he averaged over 17 ppg and 4 apg at University High School in Normal, IL.  From what I can tell, he has good shooting range and solid ball-handling skills.  (Schumacher’s YouTube Highlights)

-Tom Pupavac, freshman – After striking gold in Australia with Xavier Cooks, the WU coaching staff has brought in a couple of players from Down Under, the first being the 6’10” Pupavac.  He appears to have a good outside shot for a big guy, and it will be interesting to see how he’s able to battle down low at the Division I level. (Pupavac’s YouTube Highlights)

-Kyle Zunic, freshman – Zunic is the other new Australian on the roster, and is a 6’2″ combo guard with some experience at the international level, playing for Australia’s U17 National Team in the 2016 FIBA U17 World Championship.  Coach Kelsey raved about his toughness in the school’s press release when he was signed. (Zunic’s YouTube Highlights)

-Charles Falden, freshman – Falden is a 6’3″ guard/wing who played high school ball at LC Bird HS in Chesterfield, VA, then spent last season at Massanutten Military Academy.  He averaged over 20 ppg (I’ve seen anywhere from 21-24 ppg depending on the source) at Massanutten, a team that is sending 4 players to D1 schools from their roster last year.  He also shot over 40% from three, both at Massanutten and as a senior in HS. (Falden’s YouTube Highlights)

Walk-Ons:
-Kellen Blake, senior
-Freddie Poole, senior
-Mitch Hill, senior
-Matt Erps, senior

WU has a veteran group of walk-ons to help run scout team and add practice depth.  It would be surprising to see any in this group get meaningful minutes this season.  Matt Erps is the only new walk-on on the roster, but he’s not new to the program, spending the last three seasons as a team manager.

Early Outlook:
It is way too early to have any idea on exactly how good this team will be in 2017-18.  With so many new names on the roster, it is hard to really know.  Having Xavier Cooks on the team should keep WU in the mix at the top of the Big South standings, as nobody in the league can really match up with him.  UNC Asheville and Liberty each return a good chunk of their rosters from last season, so don’t be surprised if they are picked as the favorites over WU in the preseason.  WU’s success will likely hinge on how well the newcomers fit into the mix.  The Eagles are currently on a trip to Australia, which should help jump-start some of the integration of the new guys into the system.  The good news is that most of the newcomers have faced some good competition in their past, as a couple have played at the Division I level already, and others have been at good programs at the Junior College level, the International level, and/or the prep-school level.  But there is always a learning curve that they will all have to overcome, and I expect to see some early struggles, especially on the defensive end.  It seems to take Kelsey’s teams a little while to mesh on defense, and while Cooks and Bjorn Broman should be good veteran presences on that end, there will surely be some missed assignments, miscommunication, and breakdowns defensively as the new guys get incorporated into the system.  As we get into the fall, we’ll hopefully know a little more about how this team will look, and I’ll take a deeper dive into what each team in the Big South will bring to the 2017-18 season.

 

Wrapping up 2016-17

In the college sports calendar, it is always a sad day when the final spring sport ends, as you know you’ll have to wait a couple of months for action on the field to get started again.  WU reached that point this past weekend…

Baseball
Constant rain postponed the start of the Big South Tournament by two days, and then created a very cramped schedule in order to get the tournament completed by Sunday.  WU came in as the top seed, and the Eagles were involved in a few exciting moments, but unfortunately the team was unable to claim a championship or get back the NCAAs.

WU opened up the tournament with a great start by Nate Pawelcyzk against Campbell (only 1 run allowed in 6 1/3 innings), but it took some late game dramatics for WU to win as Campbell scored two runs in the top of the 9th to tie the game and WU ended up winning on a walk-off single by Hunter Lipscomb in the 10th to give WU the 4-3 victory.  Lipscomb was huge throughout the game, going 4 for 6 with all 4 WU RBIs.  Unfortunately WU fell in their 2nd game to Radford, 7-1, which pushed the Eagles into the loser’s bracket and made the road to a championship much tougher.  Freshman Colton Rendon looked to be pitching really well early in the game, but the Highlanders scored 7 runs off of him in the 4th inning, and WU couldn’t get anything going against RU’s Danny Hrbek.

That pushed WU into an elimination game on Saturday vs. High Point, which was played at River Bluff High School (in order to give a clear TV window to ESPNU for a different game of the tournament).  Playing at a high school created a home run derby atmosphere, and the Eagles trailed 8-0 in the 4th inning and 13-7 in the 8th inning.  Somehow, WU was able to make a crazy comeback, scoring 6 runs in the 9th inning to win 14-13.  The teams combined for 13 home runs.

Saturday evening, WU headed back to Lexington County Stadium to face Presbyterian.  WU got a solid staff pitching performance, but the Eagles entered the bottom of the 9th inning trailing 3-1.  However, WU came through with another big comeback win, scoring 3 runs to beat the Blue Hose, 4-3.  WU then got to face the Blue Hose again on Sunday morning in a 7-inning elimination game to see who faced Radford in the finals (and I will continue to not understand why the tournament format includes 7-inning games, but that’s a rant for another day).  Rendon got the start on only a day’s rest (options were pretty limited at that point) and PC jumped on him for 5 runs in the first, and WU never recovered.  Presbyterian ended up winning 9-4 to eliminate the Eagles.

Track & Field
WU had three athletes compete at the NCAA East Preliminary Championships in Lexington, KY.  On Day 1, Alesha Love competed in the 400m hurdles, running a 1:02.21 in the first heat, which unfortunately did not qualify her for the quarterfinals.  Love ended up finishing in 44th out of the 48 at the meet.  Quemell Brave also competed on the first day in the long jump.  Brave jumped 7.08m in his first attempt, and was unable to improve on that mark in his final two jumps.  That distance ended up placing him in 33rd place, outside of the top 12 that got to advance to Eugene for the Finals.  Day 2 of the event concluded with the men’s 3000m steeplechase, which had Kevin Mills in the field.  Mills was in the final heat and ran a 9:14.11, which put him in 35th place.

 

 

.

Talkin’ Baseball

Congratulations are in order as the Winthrop baseball team won 2 out of 3 games at Radford this past weekend, which gave the Eagles a 17-7 conference record and the regular season championship.  WU ended up finishing a game ahead of Liberty to clinch only the 4th regular season Big South championship for the program (1995, 2001, and 2003 were the other years that it happened…yes, the team did finished on top of the South Division in 2015, but 4 teams in the North had better records than WU did, so it is hard to make a claim for that season).  This is an important accomplishment for a program that has been mired in mediocrity for the past decade.  But if the team wants to make it to its first NCAA Tournament since 2006, then they have to win the Big South Tournament in Lexington, SC this week.

The conference tournament begins on Tuesday at Lexington County Stadium, and WU is the #1 seed, and will face #8 Campbell at 4:30pm in the Eagles’ first contest of the double-elimination tournament.  A win in that first game would advance WU to a winners-bracket game against either #4 High Point or #5 Radford at around 8:00pm on Wednesday night.  A loss would force WU into an elimination game around 1:00pm on Wednesday (against either HPU or RU).  As always, winning the early games gives you a huge advantage in winning the whole tournament.  Winning the first two games only then requires you to win 4 total games to win the title.  However, dropping one of the first two contests means you have to play 6 games (and win 5 of them) if you want to hold the trophy on Saturday and get to the NCAAs.

The key to Winthrop’s success in Big South play has been the outstanding starting pitching that WU has had during conference play.  WU led the conference (looking only at conference games) with a 2.80 staff ERA, and the starters (Reece Green, Nate Pawelczyk, and Colten Rendon) had a 2.58 ERA in conference games.  That’s not to take anything away from the WU offense, which led the league in batting average, but the Eagles’ greatest strength came from the mound, especially on the weekends.  That’s why it becomes very important for WU to try and win the early games of this tournament in order to not have to go too deep into the pitching staff.  In non-conference games this season, WU had a 5.65 ERA (4.74 if you take out the Citadel game that WU lost 34-8), and in mid-week contests, WU’s ERA was 6.87 (4.86 if you take out that Citadel game).

So can WU win the title this week?  There’s no reason they can’t.  Liberty has a solid team and should probably be considered the co-favorite along with Winthrop.  But in this type of tournament, you can’t be terribly surprised by much.  Again, WU’s best chance will be if WU can avoid getting into the loser’s bracket early so they don’t have to get too deep into the staff.  Weather could prove to be an issue though, especially early in the week, so who knows how that will impact each team, and how that could affect pitching rotations and possible rest times.  And an interesting subplot could emerge with WU pitcher Matt Crohan.  Crohan was named the Big South’s Preseason Pitcher of the Year, but he hasn’t thrown a pitch this season after having a set-back in his recovery from an arm injury that sidelined him last season after only three starts.  Head Coach Tom Riginos was hoping he’d be able to face live pitching a few weeks ago, but I haven’t seen any follow-up that has talked about his progress.  And even if he is cleared to pitch in game action, I wouldn’t expect it to be more than an inning here or there, but that’s something to keep an eye out for in Lexington.