By mid-major standards, Winthrop took a conventional route to the NCAA Tournament.
After a largely respectable non-conference run, the Eagles earned a share of the Big South regular season championship and then cut down the nets at home to win the league tournament by holding off Hampton. By no means did conventional equal boring, as the Eagles ripped off a 14-game winning streak and notched a landmark non-conference win at Saint Mary’s during the season.
In the end, a league co-champion with a small number (2) next to its name earning an auto-bid? Nothing unusual or unconventional about that, but some of the players that engineered that success took anything but a conventional road to Rock Hill.
Senior guard Hunter Hale locked in the tournament MVP after averaging 24.5 points over the Eagles’ quarterfinal and semifinal wins, and then posted a solid stat line (10 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists) in what was a sluggish title game until the final 10 minutes. It was the highest individual honor — to this point — of a college career that began in 2015. Hale, a Kalamazoo, Mich. native, got sparse playing time at Central Michigan as a freshman in 2015-16, and then redshirted the following year.
Following that, he transferred to Division II Grand Valley State, and at the time talked to the Grand Valley Lanthorn about the move.
“(Central) was thinking about playing me as the backup, but I ended up redshirting my second year,” Hale said. “After that, I took some time with my family to think about my future. Then, I put up my release papers out, and Grand Valley contacted me.”
“At the end of the day, it’s all about winning here,” Hale said. “I just want to win games. Whether I score 0 points, 40 points, I just want to win.”
Lakers’ coach Ric Wesley was emphatic about adding a shooter like Hale, and was not let down. Over two seasons at GVSU, Hale averaged 14.9 points per game and shot 40 percent from distance. With one season of eligibility remaining, Hale yo-yo’d back to Division I, signing with the Eagles as a graduate transfer in May, with Pat Kelsey expressing his excitement about the experienced, two-way player he was adding to his roster.
Yet again, Hale did not disappoint.
Playing off the ball, Hale added a strong punch to what would ultimately be the Big South’s most efficient offense. The senior wing led the Eagles in scoring (13.9 PPG) while chipping in marquee performances not only in the league tournament, but also the Eagles’ Big South opening win over Longwood (29 points) on Jan. 2 and three-overtime thriller against Gardner Webb (25 points) on Jan. 11.
His running mate pulling the strings of the Winthrop offense also knows something about Division II basketball. In 2018, then-Walsh University point guard Chandler Vaudrin decided to take a leap. After an all-league season, he opted to test his options at the Division I level, something that his coach — Jeff Young — had, according to the Canton Repository, never had happen in 14 years with the program.
“I was in a good situation,” Vaudrin said, “and I decided to bet on myself and pursue a dream I’ve had since I was a little kid.”
That bet paid off.
After a redshirt year, the 6’7 point guard has added a dose of versatility to Kelsey’s offense. He’s handled the reins of the Eagles’ up-tempo offense, registering the 43rd best assist rate in the country (32.9%). His size has let him shift to a more front court-centered role, especially when freshman Russell Jones — a player nearly a foot shorter than him — comes in as a lead guard.
In either position, Vaudrin has been an asset on the glass with the third best defensive rebounding percentage in the Big South. And in the vein of a mid-major Luka Doncic, he may be one of the country’s closest things to a nightly triple double threat (9.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 5.8 APG).
The Eagles’ roster has plenty of more traditional contributors, like star big man DJ Burns, who was an elite prep prospect that spent a redshirt year at Tennessee before exploding in Rock Hill this year (11.9 PPG, 4.1 RPG). Senior forward Josh Ferguson (11.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG) is also wrapping up a four-year career that’s seen him be a major contributor for three straight seasons. And the team seems to have two-way star ready to blossom in freshman forward Chase Claxton, who led the way in the Big South title game with 10 points and seven rebounds.
But whether it was deliberate or not (and it’s hard to believe it wasn’t), Kelsey seems to have identified an underutilized pipeline for talent, and Hale and Vaudrin are about to live the ultimate Division I dream.