Here’s why the Winthrop Eagles could be a Cinderella team come March.

We have cinderella teams every season, and similar to all other seasons, we will have one if not multiple this season.

Pat Kelsey’s Winthrop Eagles are as ready as anybody to make a run after not being able to participate in the NCAA Tournament due to COVID-19.

Quick Notes:

The Eagles are 11-0 with wins over Little Rock (Sun Belt favorite), Furman (SOCON Favorite), UNCG, and 8-0 in Big South play.

The Eagles are one of four teams with 10+ games played that have yet to lose: the others? #7 Michigan, #1 Gonzaga, #2 Baylor, and Drake. 

THE ROSTER:

Chandler Vaudrin is the ONLY player in Division One College hoops to have multiple triple-doubles this season.

Getting started with Vaudrin, the big lefty guard is the star of the team, and I compare him to former Summit League star John Konchar, who went to IPFW, and now plays for the Memphis Grizzles. Vaudrin is averaging 12 points-per-game, 7.3 rebounds-per-game, 8.3, and a steal per game. Vaudrin is one of only two players in the country with a line of 12/7/8, and the other is UIC guard Teyvion Kirk. It’s not every day you find a 6’7 true point guard, and Pat Kelsey got an absolute steal with Vaudrin. The fifth-year senior spent two seasons at Walsh University, a D2 school in Ohio. You can tell Vaudrin spent quarantine in the gym with the much improved free-throw numbers along with three-point numbers. The constant “Always Hungry” attitude fits Vaudrin with the improvements throughout his career. 

          Being able to find a D2 transfer that is one of the more unique players in the country, on legitimately one of the better teams in the country, is extremely impressive.

The Eagles run an 11-man rotation every single game; there are literally 11 players on the roster playing 13+ minutes per game. Being able to find that kind of depth as a lower mid-major team is insanely impressive, and it’s not just warm bodies. They are very talented players. 

   Kyle Zunic’s minutes on the team have been steady for all three of his seasons playing in Rock Hill. Although the minutes are still there, Zunic’s role on the team has changed. He went from the guy that is the shooter to now having a lineup full of guys that can shoot from three. Zunic currently is shooting 37% from three in 2020-21, still a phenomenal shooter. With Zunic’s Leadership and shooting, he is one of the true unsung heroes of the team.

   Pat Kelsey’s leading scorer Charles Falden is averaging 13.3 PPG with efficient percentages of 48% from the field with 39% from three. Falden is the shooter of the team and the guy you want taking the last shot down three. Falden is in his fourth season at Winthrop, a talent developed from within that’s going to be a trend. 

  With Michael Anumba, you get the guy who is 2nd in minutes per game only behind Vaudrin. Anumba doesn’t fill up the scoring column often, although if you need him to get a bucket, he’s more than capable. Anumba is a tremendous rebounder for a guard with the good defensive ability and gets opportunistic baskets. Anumba is shooting 51% from the field, with 6.3 PPG, but he gets timely points. Anumba’s started all but two of his games in his three year Winthrop career.

  Oh, did you think Coach Kelsey only had one D2 transfer? Think again. Adonis Arms, the third leading scorer on the roster, spent one season playing for Northwest Nazarene in Idaho. It’s not much of a surprise that Arms is an integral piece of a team poised to make noise in the tournament. Arms played two games against D1 competition in 2018-19 in the “Vandal Hoops Showcase” hosted by the Idaho Vandals, NW Nazarene played Idaho, and Portland State. Arms led Nazarene to a victory over Idaho while leading the team with 21 points, six rebounds, and five steals. He put the squad on his back to win over a D1 team. Game two resulted in a loss to Portland State, but Arms had 16 points in that one. Arms play just 17 minutes-per-game and don’t start, but he’s on the court in the Eagles’ most important moments. Arms is averaging 11.5 PPG, with a team-best 42% from three. Arms make the most of his minutes. If you look hard enough for talent, you can find it anywhere.

  With Michael Anumba, you get the guy who is 2nd in minutes per game only behind Vaudrin. Anumba doesn’t fill up the scoring column often, although if you need him to get a bucket, he’s more than capable. Anumba is a tremendous rebounder for a guard with the good defensive ability and gets opportunistic baskets. Anumba is shooting 51% from the field, with 6.3 PPG, but he gets timely points. Anumba’s started all but two of his games in his three year Winthrop career.

   D.J. Burns only plays 14.7 minutes-per-game but makes his presence felt. A scoring first big-man that puts the ball in the basket when on the floor. Burns, the 6’9 275 pound big man, is averaging 9.5 PPG. Burns was a former four-star recruit who started his season with a Tennesee’s redshirt before transferring to Winthrop despite never having played for Tennessee. Safe to say that moves proven to beneficial for both sides.

     The main depth:

Josh Corbin: 6.5 PPG, 41% from three, 11 minutes per game. 

Corbin is a sophomore who does one thing and does a great job at it. Corbin is the guy that comes off the bench to knock down some threes. Corbin’s shot 53 shots this season, 46 of which have been from three. 

Kelton Talford: 6.4 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 58.3 FG percentage

Talford is the future of the Winthrop Program. I would be beyond stunned if, by next season, Talford isn’t on an All-Big South team. Talford is a fantastic athlete that’s 6’7, can grab boards, and is efficient inside. Talford can play anywhere from 3-5, a true positionless player, that on this team plays a lot of five when Burns isn’t on the floor. Having someone with his athleticism is a mismatch inside because he can drive less athletic bigs to the basket, get past them, or draw a foul. Free throws are a point of improvement for Talford, only 14-28 this season, but once the intricacies are worked out, he will be a star.

Jamal King: 5.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 35.7% from three

While Anumba is the true “Glue Guy” of the team, King is the Glue Guy bench version. King’s defense and shooting ability make him ultra-valuable in his thirteen minutes per game. King will likely never led the Eagles in scoring in a single game this season, but he’ll make plays that contribute to winning Basketball games. 

Russell Jones Jr: 5.6 PPG

Jones is a player that I think can make remarkable strides down the stretch. Jones is only 5’8, but he can defend, and Jones’s jumper and quickness are big. The jumper hasn’t fallen often in limited attempts this season, but Jones will be an important part of that for Winthrop to go deep.

Chase Claxton: 4.4 PPG, 3.3 RPG

Chase is the younger brother of former Georgia Bulldogs star Nic Claxton, and Nic is a current member of the Brooklyn Nets. Similar to his brother, Chase is a lanky athlete that defends at a high-level. Claxton is absurdly efficient inside, and although he isn’t a shooter at the current moment, maybe in the future, he adds that. Claxton doesn’t need to shoot on this team. He comes in and plays his role extraordinarily well. Claxton is one of the top defenders on the roster.

Interesting nuggets:

Using KenPom.com, Winthrop is the fastest-paced team in College Basketball this season. The pace of the team is partly due to the depth. Always having fresh bodies in the game makes for a team that is always ready to run the floor.

The Eagles shoot only 66.2% from the foul line. That’s an issue that needs to be worked out, and I envision that they can work it out later in the year. Ideally, get it to around 70%.

Can the Eagles go unbeaten in the regular season?

It is certainly possible, based on the current schedule, Winthrop will play 23 games in total. With six more series of the regular season against Longwood, Presbyterian, Hampton, Gardner-Webb, Radford, and UNC Asheville.

The last two matchups will be the tougher ones. Radford is an extremely young team with a future star Xavier Lipscomb. Maybe the Highlanders gell later in the season.

Gardner-Webb currently looks like the 2nd best team in the conference, is led by senior star Jaheam Cornwall, a lock for Big South first team.

Then UNC Asheville, their star, Devon Baker, hasn’t suited up this season to this point. If Baker came back in 2020-21, the Bulldogs become dangerous, with Baker along with Taijon Jones, the best shooter in the conference, L.J. Thorpe, and Trent Stephenny. I like UNCA a ton, and it’ll be a fun late-season matchup.

To answer the original question, I think Winthrop will end the season undefeated, win the Big South tournament, and enter the NCAA Tournament unscathed. 

Final Question: What is the Eagles ceiling?

In a year like this, it’s tough to determine. If everyone is healthy, I think this team is poised to make a 2nd-weekend Elite Eight/Sweet Sixteen run. I think Pat Kelsey’s Eagles will be a 12 or 13 seed that makes a run in the tournament. What wins in March? Guard play, Leadership, and depth. Winthrop checks all those boxes with flying colors. Winthrop IS NOT a team you want to face in the tournament, and be prepared to hear the name ‘Winthrop Eagles’ and #RockTheHill an absurd amount of times come Mid-March. 

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