Monday, November 14, 2016

Getting to know Winthrop

Now just over two days removed from a season-opening loss at Bucknell, Manhattan College returns to its familiar confines of Draddy Gymnasium for a two-game homestand, beginning Tuesday morning with a contest against Winthrop.

The 8:45 a.m. soiree against the Eagles, in addition to being televised in ESPN's Tip-Off Marathon, is also part of the NIT Preseason Tip-Off, an event the Jaspers are participating in for the first time. Admission for this game is free, and the atmosphere in Riverdale should undoubtedly be a raucous one.

Their opponent, perhaps most notorious for putting Gregg Marshall on the map as a head coach before he departed for greater heights at Wichita State, enters this game at 1-0 on the young season, defeating Division III Ferrum College in a 66-47 victory Saturday. Head coach Pat Kelsey has gradually returned Winthrop to the winning ways the program enjoyed under Marshall a decade ago, and has a dynamic offense to boot, having averaged 82 points per game last season.

Led by Australian wing Xavier Cooks and 5-foot-7 point guard Keon Johnson, the Eagles come into the season as the prohibitive favorite in the Big South Conference, and if they can replicate their high-octane scoring tendencies, will be an interesting clash in styles against the defensive-minded, pressuring style employed by Steve Masiello and the Jaspers.

To shed further light on Winthrop and what they bring to the table, we resurrect our pregame question-and-answer session, enlisting the services of Brian Wilmer to provide additional background information on the Eagles. Brian covers Winthrop and the Big South in general for our sister site, College Hoops Digest, and was gracious enough to take the time to give Jasper fans the inside scoop on their first home opponent of the 2016-17 campaign:

Jaden Daly: Not many Jasper fans have an idea what to expect from Winthrop. In a nutshell, what can you say about the style they play and who to watch out for?

Brian Wilmer: Winthrop plays a high-tempo offense that loves to get out in transition and score quick buckets. The Eagles have a number of athletic guards, led by preseason Big South Player of the Year Keon Johnson, with solid ball-handling skills and the ability to both attack the basket and knock down long-range jumpers. Winthrop also features center Duby Okeke, who, despite playing limited minutes, is a disrupting force in the paint.

The primary downfall of this pace is that the Eagles can sometimes, as they did in their season-opener, "settle" for lesser shots. Coach Pat Kelsey preaches passing up "good" for "great", in terms of looks, and Winthrop can get out of that habit at times. The Eagles missed their first ten threes on Saturday, finishing 2-for-21.

JD: Xavier Cooks seems like a legitimate game-changer on the wing. Against Manhattan's press defense, how does his game play into Winthrop's chances?

BW: Most players of Cooks' size would struggle against the press. However, the 6-foot-8 Aussie brings ball skills that rival those of many point guards. Cooks has a lightning-fast first step and a knack for working himself open. His wingspan is also tough to account for from smaller defenders, and larger players often are not quick enough to stay with him on defense. Cooks will also occasionally pull up for a three-pointer (39.4 percent last season).

JD: Aside from Cooks, can you give us a little more background on the other Eagle starters and what they bring to the table?

BW: Johnson is an absolute grinder at the guard position. The diminutive senior -- generously listed at 5-foot-7 -- averaged 18.7 points per game last season, and is as effective a scorer and ball-handler as the Big South offers. Fellow guards Anders and Bjorn Broman also start. Anders is now eligible after transferring from South Dakota State, and Bjorn started 26 games as a freshman at Winthrop last season. Both are tenacious defenders and have the ability to light it up from outside the arc. Forward Tevin Prescott was a redshirt last season, but brings athleticism and toughness on the block.

Okeke is one of the first players off the bench, along with combo players Rod Perkins and Josh Davenport. Perkins and Davenport are both ferocious on-ball defenders, and feature a slashing offensive game that also allows them to pull up for elbow jumpers.

JD: The offense has improved steadily under Pat Kelsey's tenure. What exactly does Winthrop need to do to maximize their chances of victory? 

BW: First and foremost, be patient. The Eagles faced NCAA participant UNC Asheville three times last season in Big South play, and the Bulldogs run a smothering "13" (1-3-1) zone press. Winthrop would, at times, suffer from a lack of on-ball help in the backcourt and the lack of "good to great" mentality on offense. This led to rushed passes and shots, with many coming at inopportune times.

Paint touches are also a key tenet of Winthrop's success, and the Eagles need to play downhill toward the basket as much as possible. Much of that centers around Johnson, who scored just five points in 31 minutes in the season-opener.

JD: Overall, where do you see the Eagles finishing in the Big South, and is a postseason appearance likely?

BW: Like nearly all league media, I picked Winthrop to win the league. They have a tremendous amount of returning talent, and they have played for three consecutive league titles.

Should Winthrop win the regular-season crown, they would host the quarterfinals and semifinals of the league tournament. Should they make the championship game, they would also potentially host that contest. Combining these factors, the Eagles are a reasonable bet to take the floor in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since falling, 61-44, to Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the 2010 play-in game. If Winthrop is unable to raise the trophy this year, however, the league's automatic NIT bid for the regular-season champion is also a solid goal.

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