Winthrop has not had a great season. They have a losing record overall and in conference, which is somewhat rare for them in recent years. They finished behind five other teams in the conference, and tied with VMI, Presbyterian, and High Point. But the Eagles got lucky with the tiebreaker. Presbyterian of course is not eligible again this season. Winthrop went 1-3 against the Keydets and Panthers this season. Normally this would mean that Winthrop would be the #8 seed in the conference, having to play-in and face host/regular season champion UNC Asheville in the quarterfinals. But with VMI and High Point having only played once, the tiebreaker instead went to record against common opponents, which favored Winthrop. This tiebreaker would not have been in play if not for the new conference schedule that came into effect after the addition of Campbell mandated unbalanced conference schedules. But with the tiebreaker, Winthrop would have a much easier road than VMI or High Point. This game the Eagles would face Campbell, who was entering the tournament on a slide. With #2 seed Coastal Carolina losing in the previous game, Winthrop had a seemingly easy path to the final.
Also aiding the Eagles was a culture of winning instilled in the program by Gregg Marshall and carried on by Randy Peele. The defensive style of basketball Winthrop plays works well during the postseason grind, and has produced nine of the last 13 conference tournament championships. Winthrop also wins a lot in the regular season, but both Peele and Marshall have been even better in the tournament. They win when it counts the most, and even the recent players who have struggled somewhat play with the expectation of winning a conference title. Winthrop continues to persist and dominate the conference. Randy Peele has never won a regular season title. Even Marshall did not win many early regular season titles early in his career, at least not relative to his tournament success. Radford often won the regular season, but Winthrop would win the tournament. And then Marshall began to dominate both the regular season tournament before he left for Wichita State.
And since then, Peele has done fairly well. Winthrop has won two conference tournaments in the four previous seasons. That is the most conference championships in the conference since Marshall left, although UNC Asheville could match that if they win on Saturday. But for the fans from the Marshall era, that's not good enough. In Peele's first season, the Eagles were upset on the final day of the regular season by UNC Asheville to fall to second place in the conference. Winthrop would get revenge in Asheville and win the tournament again. But Winthrop attendance slumped dramatically from Marshall's last season. Winthrop was coming off its best season ever, but no Gregg Marshall apparently meant fewer fans.
When Peele struggled the following season with new players, Winthrop fans began to worry that Peele's career trajectory was the same as his at UNC Greensboro: win with the previous coach's players, and then lose with the new players you bring in. Winthrop would win the Big South tournament however the following year, this time without the help of any of Marshall's players. But the team lost in Dayton after having finished third in the Big South during the regular season, and Winthrop fans wanted more. And the team the last couple years has finished towards the middle of the conference. Now Winthrop fans are furious that they are not dominating the Big South anymore. Instead of appreciating what Gregg Marshall did for them, they wish that Randy Peele was him. And a few on their message board were actually hoping for a bad tournament so the Winthrop administration would be more motivated to bring in a new coach. There are times I would like to see my team make the necessary changes to improve. But I would never consider hoping that they would lose in order to do that. I may not always feel that my players and coaches have done as well as I would have liked, but I want them to succeed and worry later whether they should be replaced. And most Winthrop fans seem to want another tournament win, but that should not have even been a discussion.
Part of me wanted to see Winthrop win, because Randy Peele deserved it. Peele has not always done things I have been happy with, such as starting a heated conversation with High Point forward Steadman Short after a HPU win at the Winthrop Coliseum in 2009. Peele also made a few arrogant and bitter comments after a BracketBuster loss at Appalachian State this season. But Peele needs to be given credit for something Winthrop fans are not giving him credit for: he is a great basketball coach. Winthrop limits turnovers, takes good shots, and plays good defense. That is how Gregg Marshall wins games at both WU and Wichita State, and why Peele has been still somewhat successful despite not having the talent Marshall's teams had. The Big South is better with good coaches like Peele in the conference. But part of me still wanted Campbell to win, just to get fresh blood in winning conference titles. But Campbell might have been a little too fresh, after having been in the Atlantic Sun for most of the last 20 years. But after having bad memories at Winthrop before, my hope was that their fan base might get smaller and better if they become further removed from their previous success.
But as for this matchup, Winthrop would take advantage of the struggling Camels. Winthrop's defense was effective as usual, and Reggie Middleton made the most of his last Big South tournament by hitting shots that propelled Winthrop to a big lead at halftime.
During the game, I tweeted the correct answer in the Big South trivia contest (the question was when the conference was founded, which was in 1983). With the correct tweet, I won a Big South polo shirt. So both Matt and I won a prize today.
During the second half, Campbell briefly made stabs at coming back. But Winthrop was able to hold on through its slow-tempo game and getting defensive stops, and the Camels never made a serious run that posed a challenge to the Eagles. Winthrop would continue to persist with its tournament dominance, as Middleton scored 25 points to lead the Eagles to a 71-57 win.
Winthrop's dominance would not last much longer, as between the game and when I could type this recap Winthrop was crushed by VMI the next day. It will be interesting to see how Winthrop moves forward from this tournament. It was not a complete disaster, as they won this game against Campbell. Winthrop can still persist as a conference power, but next season will be tough with mostly new players again. What they should not do is make a panic move. High Point did after Bart Lundy finished 9th out of 10 with a new group of players, and that stunted the development of the program going forward.
WINTHROP 71, at CAMPBELL 55 02/29/2012
WINTHROP 12-19 (8-10) -- J. Jerome 2-5 4-4 8; G. Valentine 3-5 1-2 7; R. Middleton 7-13 6-6 25; A. Jones 5-16 0-0 14; M. Morgan 3-6 3-6 9; J. Bourne 1-2 0-0 2; G. Gamble 2-6 0-0 4; R. King 0-0 0-0 0; L. Brown 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 24-54 14-18 71. CAMPBELL 17-15 (11-7) -- D. White 4-8 5-9 15; L. Merthie 3-8 0-0 9; E. Griffin 2-5 4-4 8; A. Celestin 4-6 0-0 8; T. Freeman 2-7 2-2 6; M. Harris 1-2 0-0 2; A. Ryan 2-6 2-2 7; R. Ferguson 0-1 0-0 0; A. Horton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-43 13-17 55.
Three-point goals: WINT 9-22 (A. Jones 4-9; G. Gamble 0-3; R. Middleton 5-10), CAMP 6-15 (L. Merthie 3-6; D. White 2-4; A. Ryan 1-4; T. Freeman 0-1); Rebounds: WINT 26 (M. Morgan 7), CAMP 25 (A. Celestin 7); Assists: WINT 17 (J. Jerome 9), CAMP 13 (L. Merthie 4); Total Fouls -- WINT 16, CAMP 19; Fouled Out: WINT-None; CAMP-None.