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Coming off 3 straight Big South final losses, Winthrop looks to take next step in 2017

Winthrop looks like the early favorite in the Big South this season.

NCAA Basketball: Winthrop at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Following its third loss in the Big South Conference championship game in as many years, former NCAA Tournament mainstay Winthrop will look to break a six-year drought next year and give fifth-year coach Pat Kelsey his first trip to the Dance as a head coach.

Kelsey, a member of the Skip Prosser and Chris Mack coaching trees, will have a roster full of athletic and skilled players who can impact the game in multiple ways. Look for the Eagles to continue to push the pace as they did last season (20th fastest adjusted tempo according to KenPom; 13th in the country in scoring at 82.2 points per game). The Eagles broke program records last season for three-pointers made per game (8.9), total three-pointers made (285), total blocks (174) and blocks per game (5.44), and should play a similar style next year.

All-Big South members Keon Johnson, a 5’7 senior guard, and junior guard-forward Xavier Cooks return to lead the Eagles in 2016-17. Johnson, who enters the season as a favorite to win the Big South Player of the Year award, posted 18.7 points, 2.5 assists, and 4.1 rebounds per game last season. He also shot 45 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from three. The second-team all-conference member Cooks posted 14.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.9 assists as a sophomore. The duo will be counted on to shoulder the bulk of the scoring load and will cause plenty of headaches for opposing coaches. However, they also have a supporting cast of returning and incoming players to relieve some of the pressure.

One of those players is sophomore sharpshooter Bjorn Broman (6 points per game, 43 made three-pointers, 31 starts last year). Broman, who led the country in scoring as a high school senior, averaging 49.6 points per game, will be depended on to have an extended role this season and help to fill the void left by first team Big South member Jimmy Gavin, who played for the Orlando Magic in the NBA Summer League this summer.

Senior forward Josh Davenport (6 points per game, 59.8 percent from the field), and 6’8 junior rim-protector Duby Okeke (4.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.5 blocks per game) also return for the Eagles. Okeke broke the Winthrop single-season record for blocked shots last season. Winthrop will depend on the duo’s added production offensively and on the glass to take the next step forward in their pursuit of an NCAA Tournament berth.

Roderick Perkins, a forward who was injured midway through last season, also returns for his senior season. Perkins averaged six points per game and logged six starts in 15 games before his injury. If he can return to pre-injury health, Perkins will be an added boost in the frontcourt for the Eagles

The team’s X factor? That might be Tevin Prescott, who redshirted last season. He was a starter for the Eagles in 2014-15, averaging 7.1 points and five rebounds per game as junior.

The returning core will have to blend with several newcomers looking to make an instant impact. Junior guard Anders Broman, brother of Bjorn, enters as a transfer from South Dakota State. The Eagles will also welcome freshman guard Patrick Fisher, who chose Winthrop over offers from Towson and Chattanooga. Freshman forward Josh Ferguson also joins the team.

Winthrop will enter the 2016-17 season as the heavy favorite in the Big South, which had several of its best players either graduate or transfer after last season. The departure of rival Coastal Carolina also removes some depth from the league.

While there is potential on the Winthrop roster, there are several unanswered questions that will need to be addressed over the course of the upcoming season. Mainly: Will the Eagles be able to handle the expectations of being the best team in a watered down league? How will the chemistry mix between returning contributors, transfers, incoming freshman, and newly healthy players? How will Pat Kelsey spread shots and playing time with such a talented roster?

All of these questions will need to be answered in order for Winthrop to get over the hump of the Big South championship game and into March Madness and the 2017 NCAA Tournament.