Nobody loves NCAA Championship Week more than I do. I have every intention of sitting on my couch as much as possible until Selection Sunday comes. I’ve decided that I’m going to track the teams from smaller conferences who win their conference championship and therefore earn an automatic bid. I shall then write my thoughts on these teams and determine just how far they will make it in this year’s tourney. We all remember George Mason last season. Will there be another small conference Cinderella in 2007?
A surprise to nobody, Winthrop earned their automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament by winning the Big South Conference championship tournament. Winthrop completely dominated the Big South throughout the season, going a perfect 14-0 in conference play. Their three point victory in the conference championship game against VMI was the closest game they played in about a month and a half.
It is a well known cliché in college basketball that teams who are hot are the ones who are dangerous when March Madness comes around. When it comes to teams on a roll one would have to look no further than the Winthrop Eagles. Ranked 22 in the Coaches Poll (24 in AP), the Eagles are heading into the NCAA Tournament as winners of 18 consecutive games. Their last loss was on January 2 when they were blown out by a very good Texas A&M team on the road.
This is a veteran college basketball team made up of numerous upperclassmen. Junior guard Michael Jenkins leads the Eagles in scoring, averaging 15.3 points per game. Senior guard Torrell Martin is not far behind, putting up 14.2 a game. Senior F-C Craig Bradshaw is the big man down low. Bradshaw scores 13.3 points and brings down 6.3 rebounds a game. It is this mix of both talent and experience that is necessary for any team to make a good run long into the tournament.
The Eagles went 28-4 in the regular season, losing all four games on the road to ranked opponents. A quick glance might make you think that this is a soft team when facing good competition. That is hardly the case. Winthrop gave the Tar Heels all they could handle in the seven-point loss. At one point the Eagles actually held a twelve-point lead.
Let there be absolutely no doubt about it. Winthrop is a team that can play with the big boys of Division I. I for one will be shocked if on Selection Sunday the Eagles receive anything other than a fifth or sixth seed in whichever bracket they are put into. Whether or not they get the respect they’ve earned is another story.
I’m not even so sure that Winthrop could be considered a “Cinderella” team. After all, they are ranked in both polls. Nevertheless if it’s a small conference team you are looking for to pencil into the later rounds of your bracket look no further than the Winthrop Eagles. I will admit that there have been times throughout the year when Winthrop’s defense has looked shaky. However, they have guards that can shoot the three ball. They have size underneath to clear the boards and score the dirty baskets. Finally there’s that hot streak that I spoke of earlier.
Winthrop’s downfall may actually be that their talent is too well known. Even though they play in the Big South this is a basketball team with high expectations from many experts in the country. Sure, the Eagles have often been forgotten about during the regular season. With a spotlight on them just how will this small conference school react? I’m going to be one of the bandwagon jumpers and have faith in Winthrop. The Eagles have definite Sweet 16 possibilities with the talent to drive them even further into the tournament.