Team preview: Winthrop

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.


For years -- through nine Big South championships in the last 13 seasons -- the Eagles have feathered their nest with defense, and while they were good at that end last year, they weren't Winthrop good.

"We had something last year that we've never had here," said fifth-year head coach Randy Peele. "We just couldn't get a stop when we had to."

Peele, who coached two of those title teams and was an assistant on others, saw his squad drop to fifth in the league last year in scoring defense (66.9) and fifth in rebound margin (+0.5), two categories where the Eagles have always soared. As he had predicted, the graduation of defensive stalwart Mantoris Robinson the previous year was a blow and Winthrop simply didn't put the ball in the basket enough to offset the drop-off in D.

Now subtract leading scorer Robbie Dreher from that mix. Dreher, along with useful big man Julius Francis, have transferred under a cloud in a criminal investigation, another part of what made last year so miserable in Rock Hill.

The final seven games, including four losses, were all decided by five points or less, and of the Eagles' school-record four overtime games, they lost three, components that dropped them to fifth in the conference standings and denied them a home-court tournament game in the first round.


But Peele has a solid recruiting class joining a veteran mix that is coming back with a chip on its collective shoulder. The Eagles are still deep and talented in the backcourt, particularly if they can add some offense from the newcomers.

Winthrop Eagles

Their best player is 6-1 senior point guard Reggie Middleton (11.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.6 apg), a three-year starter who keys the offense and sets a standard on defense. He's a powerful guard, excellent in the open floor and one of the more underrated players in a guard-blessed Big South.

Senior Andre Jones (10.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg) started 30 games last year alongside Middleton and Dreher and has a reputation for hitting the big shot. The 6-2 sharpshooter is poised for a big season. "He has to put the ball in the basket," Peele said. "We need him."

Peele thinks Jones will play better out of Dreher's shadow, but a couple of freshmen may have something to say about the perimeter scoring, too, and Peele is hoping for more from two returning small forwards.

Gideon Gamble (5.2 ppg, 2.0 rpg) and Joab Jerome (2.4 ppg, 1.9 rpg) will compete there. The 6-7 Gamble tailed off some last year as a sophomore and Peele thinks the catch-and-shoot specialist is much better than his 32 percent shooting behind the arc. Gamble needs to expand his game, too, to get more minutes.

Jerome is a 6-5 sophomore with glue-like tendencies on defense, something that will always get him minutes under Peele. Two freshmen figure in the perimeter mix, too, point guard Andre Smith (19.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 3.6 apg at Blake High School) and shooting guard Derrick Henry (23.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg at Newton High School).

The 5-10 Smith was player of the year in Tampa, Fla., as a junior and is tremendous shooter and floor leader. Henry, a proven scorer who was a late addition, has great range. He was a two-time region player of the year in Covington, Ga. and was voted all-state twice.

Point guard Reggie King (0.3 ppg, 0.5 rpg) also has a chance to see more action. The 6-2 junior is tough and a natural leader. If Middleton goes to a wing, as Peele is considering, King and Smith will both see more time.

The Eagles are set up front with 6-8, 235-pound senior George Valentine (6.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and 6-9, 235-pound senior Matt Morgan (7.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg) back. Valentine started 29 games and was fourth in the BSC in rebounding and eighth with 1.1 blocked shots. He's a strong defensive presence, and when he's on top of his game, he can dominate inside.

Morgan was a part-time starter and averaged nearly 24 minutes though he sometimes wasn't as productive as in the previous season. He has a nice touch for a big man, and the Eagles are at their best when he's active at both ends.

Sophomore Derrick Scott (0.2 ppg, 0.2 rpg) has added 20 pounds -- he's now up to 215 -- on his 6-9 frame and may have to help more if some more freshmen aren't ready. James Bourne (14.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg at Bishop O'Connell High School) is a 6-8 freshman out of Chantilly, Va., but he's coming off knee surgery that curtailed his senior season early. He's a hard worker that played with UNC's Kendall Marshall at O'Connell, and Peele loves his work ethic, physicality and rebounding.

Larry Brown (14.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg at Fork Union [Va.] Military Academy) was another late signee from one of Peele's familiar recruiting turfs. The Red Springs, N.C. native is a 6-7 "junkyard dog" that excels defending the ball screen, a strategy rampant in the Big South. Bourne and Brown can improve Winthrop's rebounding numbers.

Yuba (Calif.) Community College transfer Shola Diop (6.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg) had modest statistics but still earned second-team all-conference honors for a team that won 26 games. The 6-9 Australian is a great student with good footwork but also has a gimpy knee.

Sophomore Donovan Carter (0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg) is a 6-5 walk-on, who will be joined by 6-3 freshman Chris Brown of Columbia, S.C., who played one season at Air Force Academy's prep school, and has some ability to shoot the ball.






There's a new mantra in the Winthrop Coliseum this fall: "competition by position." Peele is hoping some of his younger players can push the older ones, making the team stronger and tougher.

"That's the answer to me," he said. "I don't know what to say about this coming year because the problems are about our culture. I don't feel like we could count on the things we stood for last year like in the past. And that's a big deal around here when you're not in the NCAA Tournament. There's a sense of urgency."

Winthrop carried the Big South basketball banner for so long that there's truth to Peele's proclamation. Attendance has dropped an average of 1,500 fans since his first year and the Eagles have won just two titles in the last four years.

Other Big South fans wish they had it so good.

How high are Winthrop's expectations? Even their coach gets caught up. The Eagles were second in the Big South last year in defensive field goal percentage, allowing just 41.6 percent shooting. Peele termed that number "unacceptable."

The Eagles hold themselves to a higher standard defensively, and that's part of the answer. Of course, if they could put the ball in the basket -- their 41.5 percent shooting was 285th in the nation and their 65.8 points-per-game average was 260th -- with a little more regularity, some of their issues might resolve themselves.

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.