Introducing Cinderella: Winthrop Eagles headed to NCAA tournament

AP Photo/Richard Shiro
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Conference: Big South

Coach: Pat Kelsey

Record: 26-6, 15-3 (T-1)

Ratings and Rankings:

Kenpom: 114
RPI: 70
AP/USA Today: Not ranked

Seeding: The Eagles are likely headed to a seed in the 14 range. They have just one win of serious significance – at Illinois in November – and home losses to Radford and High Point depress their seeding ceiling.

Names you need to know: The offense is centered around Keon Johnson and Xavier Cooks in a big way. The 5-foot-7 Johnson, the Big South player of the year, is averaging 22.4 points per game and shoots better than 40 percent from 3-point range. Cooks is at 16.2 points per game and also pulls down nine boards per night.

Stats you need to know: 43.4. That’s the percentage of its shots Winthrop take from 3-point range. The Eagles convert at a 38 percent clip and have four players shooting 33 percent or better, with two Johnson (40.0) and Anders Broman (45.9) at 40 or better. That amount of shooting makes them dangerous to higher seeds.

Big wins, bad losses: The Eagles knocked off Illinois in Champaign in November, 84-80 in overtime, for their only top-100 KenPom win, though they do own victories over Furman (109) and UNC-Asheville (104). Losses to Radford (295) and High Point (269), both coming at home, are pretty serious blemishes.

How’d they get here?: They blasted Charleston Southern in their first game of the Big South tournament before surviving overtime against Gardner Webb in the semifinals. The Eagles avoided a rubber-match with Big South co-champs UNC Asheville when the Bulldogs lost in the semifinals to seventh-seeded Campbell, which was throttled by the Eagles, 76-59, on the Winthrop campus Saturday to capture the Big South title.

Outlook: Johnson, Cooks and the team’s 3-point shooting could give the Eagles a fighting chance, but the high-major opponent they’ll undoubtedly be matched up against will likely have plenty of length and defensive versatility to try to bottle up the 5-foot-7 Johnson. It’s a tough ask for any 14 seed to make it through the first round, but Winthrop’s 3-point shooting makes than an intriguing team. Also, the Eagles have been on the NCAA doorstep for the last three years, losing in the conference title game, so there’s a serious foundation there under Kelsey, who could be a coach bigger programs target once the coaching carousel gets spinning.

How do I know you?: Winthrop got the Big South’s first-ever NCAA tournament victory when as an 11-seed the Eagles defeated six-seed Notre Dame, 74-64, in 2007.