What Happened to Winthrop Basketball?

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IJanuary 12, 2009

The best part of college basketball is the Cinderella story—the team that comes out of seemingly nowhere and takes out a top ranked team or makes a run in the NCAA tournament.

These teams are the proverbial no-namers who capture the heart of America and just as quickly lose it when they disappear back into obscurity, and we are left with wall-to-wall coverage of the same five to 10 teams year in and year out.

Well, many of these small schools may be the proverbial Davids come March, but some are used to playing the role of Goliath the other four months of the college basketball season.

For example, I give you the Winthrop Eagles.

The words Winthrop and winners go together like Maryland coach Gary Williams and sweat.

For the past 10 years, Winthrop has won the Big South tournament eight times.

Eight is more than any other Big South school has won period.

Winthrop has taken home four straight conference crowns, and although they have gone 1-4 in March during that stretch, the losses include a two-point loss to Tennessee and a 10-point decision against Gonzaga.

Still, the Eagles were able to pull off a Cinderella victory over Notre Dame two years ago in the NCAA tournament before being knocked out by Oregon in the second round.

Definitely the "underdog" label does not fit the Eagles well, considering they have gone 104-24 from 1998-2007, including four straight 20-win seasons.

So imagine everyone's surprise to see that the 2008-09 version of the Winthrop Eagles are 3-11 coming hot off the heels of an overtime victory against Presbyterian.

A team that was annually punching its ticket recently stopped a 10-game losing streak.

What happened?

Well, the first factor seems clear: Winthrop misses their old head coach Gregg Marshall.

Marshall, the current head coach of the Wichita State Shockers (at 6-9, he probably misses Winthrop too), is the man that built Winthrop into the successful program we have all become accustomed to en route to becoming the winningest coach in conference history.

Marshall's winning percentage at Winthrop was over 80 percent, with major victories over teams like Marquette, Clemson, Mississippi State and Missouri during his tenure. 

He had gotten some job offers before, but after his departure following the 2007 season, the program has begun to show signs of deterioration.

Sure, Winthrop won the Big South last year, but their 12 losses on the year were more than they had registered in their past three years combined!

Winthrop had to win from the two-seed position for the first time in quite some time, and it seems like the Eagles' victory may have been sheer muscle memory.

Well the problem with muscle memory is it only works when there are veterans on the team that were part of the glory days.

Winthrop has one senior on its current roster, Jonathan Rice, who has taken a total of five field goal attempts the past two years.

Instead of experience, Winthrop rely on a total of nine freshmen and sophomores.  That's a dangerous combination for any team, but particularly one that has humiliated their conference opponents for years.

I guess revenge is a dish best served cold.

Still, despite the awful record, Winthrop may not be dead in the water quite yet.

The Eagles have played a very tough schedule, with some of their 11 losses coming to the likes of Davidson, USC, N.C. State, and Florida.

They have also had three devastatingly close losses, a 42-40 loss to High Point, a 63-60 loss to ECU, and a 77-76 defeat to the College of Charleston.

While Winthrop was getting rocked earlier in the year, it seems like this very young team may be turning things around.

Their last three games have been decided by a combined five points.  Not bad considering that eight of their losses have been by 12 points or more.

Winthrop's key to success seems pretty clear: They need an offense.

Winthrop as a team shoots under 40 percent, and their leading scorer, Cameron Stanley, averages just over 11 points per game.

That is not going to cut it in any conference.

Still, young offenses typically struggle, considering there are so many new pieces to add into the system.  That might explain why Winthrop has only 139 assists to 198 turnovers.

It may also explain why Winthrop averages less than 59 points per game and has allowed nearly 70 points per contest.  That is not exactly a winning combination.

Winthrop has its hands full this season with the VMI Keydets still riding high with their marquee win over the Kentucky Wildcats standing atop the rest at 13-2.

They may be the favorites come the conference tournament, but in the words of Rudy Tomjanovich, "never underestimate the heart of a champion."

Winthrop knows how to win, and they still come into games expecting to win.  That is the glory of playing a conference tournament, for it rewards the teams that are playing the best when it counts.

Besides, with the exception of VMI, no other Big South team could look scarier on paper.  VMI is the only Big South school over .500 so far this season, and the Keydets are one bad offensive night away from being very vulnerable. 

Of course, even if Winthrop cannot defend their crown, give credit to the Eagles and what they have accomplished over this past decade.  How many teams can claim similar stories of success during that span?

Winthrop may be on the mat, but they have time to get up and make it to the next round.

Now that'd be a real Cinderella story.


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