The Winthrop Eagles earned their way into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010 after winning the Big South tournament, and will be the 13 seed in the South region. The Eagles will play 4 seed Butler in a Thursday game in Milwaukee at the Bradley Center.
Here’s what you need to know about the Eagles:
- The Eagles are a veteran team, led by four seniors and three juniors that are among their top eight in minutes played. Per KenPom, they were the 31st most experienced team in the country this year, and 27th in “minutes continuity”.
- Winthrop only lost three times in Big South play. Two of those losses came in OT and double OT, and the third by a single bucket. Basically, Winthrop was fairly dominant in league play.
- Winthrop went 2-2 against major/high mid-major conference teams, beating Illinois and St. Louis, and losing to Dayton and Florida State. Star guard Keon Johnson did not play in the FSU game.
- Winthrop had suffered defeat in the Big South title game three years in a row until breaking through this year. To say they’re excited to be a part of the field is an understatement.
- Winthrop is led by senior guard Keon Johnson. He’s a 5’7 human missile who attacks the rim with fearlessness and hit threes at 40%. Johnson is a legit mid-major superstar. He dropped 24 against Dayton and 38 against Illinois this year, and thrives in the bright lights.
- As a 6’8 junior, Xavier Cooks is a brutal matchup even for potential NCAA tournament opponents. Cooks is long and athletic, can switch out on the perimeter defensively, and can play outside the paint offensively. However, outside of Cooks and rim protector Duby Okeke, the Eagles don’t have very much height. In fact, per KenPom, they were 347th out of 351 teams in terms of average height.
- Offensively, Winthrop is exciting. They play fast (45th fastest adjusted tempo per KenPom), they shoot a lot of threes, and they make a lot of threes. The Eagles also get to the free throw line at a near top-75 rate
- Defensively, head coach Pat Kelsey likes to use a pack-line approach but is a little more aggressive guarding the three point line than a typical pack-line defenses allow.
- Senior wing Roderick Perkins has become an offensive threat. Perkins is averaging 13.5 points per game over his last four, and has hit 14 of 25 three point attempts over that span. Perkins’ offensive explosion is a big development, as he’s a natural outlet when defenses try to smother Johnson on ball screens.
So, how does Winthrop match up with Butler? Unfortunately for Winthrop fans, not particularly well. Defensively, Butler is outstanding at limiting penetration and forcing offenses into taking jump shots from spots on the floor that Butler wants you to take them from. Winthrop can certainly shoot, but Kelsey’s offense is predicated on Johnson penetrating and breaking down the defense, making those three point attempts high percentage looks born from Johnson living in the lane. That’s how the Bulldogs knocked off overall top seed Villanova twice this year.
However, the Butler guards are defensive pests of the highest orders. Kamar Baldwin practically wears the opposing ball handler’s jersey, and Kethan Savage is a shut down perimeter defender as well. Additionally, Butler is very familiar with the Bradley Center, playing Big East foe Marquette there once a year. It may not seem like a big factor, but having a built in familiarity with the sight lines and shooting back drops of a neutral floor is indeed a sizable advantage.
Is there hope for the Eagles to pull off the upset? Certainly. Butler can be a streaky jump shooting team (although Kelan Martin has rediscovered his shot and his confidence of late), and defensively they’re susceptible to long, athletic wings and burly block scorers who can lower their shoulder in the paint. Winthrop may not possess the latter, but with Cooks they have the former. If the Eagles pull off the major upset, it may not come as a result of a herculean effort from Johnson (although that’s well within the realm of possibility), but rather because Cooks’ athleticism proves to be too much for Butler at the four position.