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Sam’s Mid-Major Crush of the Week: The Winthrop Eagles

The Big South runs through Rock Hill

Winthrop v Duke Photo by Bob Leverone/Getty Images

For those of an age near mine (27), you probably grew up watching Spongebob. In one of the episodes, the characters acquire superpowers, with the titular character being gifted with super-speed, to the point where he can run back and forth so fast that it looks like he’s standing still.

A live look at Winthrop’s offensive possessions

Much like Mr. Squarepants, the Winthrop Eagles play so fast that, at times, you’d think you didn’t even have an offensive possession.

Wow, that was a lot of effort for a terrible joke about Winthrop’s pace of play. Someone, please, come get your man Sam, he’s struggling.

Anyway, lame jokes about early 2000s kids’ cartoons aside, Winthrop is #1 in KenPom in adjusted tempo, or average number of possessions per game, at a massive 77.8. The average length of a Winthrop possession is 13.9 seconds. They’ve played 3 games of 80 possessions or more, including 80 and 84, respectively, in their two best wins: UNC Greensboro and Furman.

That’s..........absurd.

But there’s good news about playing so fast for the Eagles, I promise. Digging into the adjusted tempo stats for the last ten years, they’re a) not even close to the fastest team of the decade and b) they’re by far the best offensive team to be playing this fast in the last decade. Well, except Gonzaga this year, who’s also a top 10 tempo team, but for purposes of the article, we’re only going to consider the fastest team of each year. Winthrop is, again according to my lord and savior Ken Pomeroy, the 78th best offense in the country. Considering the algorithm tends to favor slower, efficient teams, the fact that a team is this good on offense playing at this tempo is wild. For reference, the teams in the last decade that have played faster than Winthrop have all been #170 or worse in KenPom’s offensive efficiency metric. The Eagles are a full 100 spots better.

Most of that can be found in the Four Factors. Winthrop rebounds 37% of its own misses (16th in the country), has a top 35 effective FG%, and is top 70 in free throws attempted/field goals attempted. I don’t think it takes an expert to realize those are all very good numbers.

The Eagles have ridden their lightning offense to an undefeated 9-0 record (6-0 in the Big South), including a KenPom top 75 win against the aforementioned Paladins.

The “sum it up in one word, things have gone downhill in the country and I need an expedited explanation” reason as to why Winthrop is this good? Depth. The Eagles start 3 seniors and a junior, and have another senior coming off the bench. There’s a slew of sophomores and freshmen that see not-insignificant amount of minutes In total, there are11 players seeing at least 30% of the available minutes, and only four players seeing more than 50% of the minutes. While I’d expect that to roll back as the postseason gets closer and Pat Kelsey narrows the rotation, that’s still crazy that Winthrop has gone 11 deep. They’re a top 60 3 point shooting team and a top 50 two point shooting team. Neither shot dominates their offensive scheme. Simply put, there’s a lot of guys with a lot of different skills that Pat Kelsey can plug and play with. The ability to tinker with your lineup so much and not lose quality is truly impressive, and I’d expect that versatility to keep paying dividends down the road. Of course, because Winthrop does play so fast, it makes sense that they play deep into the bench, but having 11 different guys you trust with those minutes is certainly an asset.

As is tradition in this column, the good must come with the bad, but this time I’ll start with the mediocre: the defense. It’s not great, and there’s certainly some rough numbers there, but it’s not completely miserable. The Eagles don’t let their opponents have many second chances, and they’re a top 50 team in turning their opponents over. Playing in transition = playing super-fast = easy buckets. Not a bad equation.

Okay, the actual bad. OH DEAR GOD, THE FREE THROW PERCENTAGE. IT PAINS ME. SO MUCH. Winthrop is shooting 64.3% from the charity stripe. It’s pretty rough to be so adept at getting to the line just to not make it pay off. I mean, Adonis Arms is the 2nd best player in country in terms of fouls drawn per 40 minutes. Chandler Vaudrin is a top 20 player in free throw rate. Both shoot under 70%. It hasn’t come back to haunt them yet, but there have been close games played by the Eagles, and not making your free throws in close games is a one way ticket to having a lot of middle-aged dudes with sunglasses-on profile pictures on Twitter dot com being super-mad at you. As much as it leaves a distaste in my mouth, these dudes are right: you gotta make them, especially when you’re so good at getting to the line.

The other bad also concerns the free throw line. The Eagles foul. Like, a lot. It’s good that they play their depth, but they have 5 guys averaging over 5 fouls per 40 minutes, including one player at 6.6 and another at 7.6 fouls per 40 minutes. It’s hard to use “opponent’s free throw percentage” as an analytical tool, because you can’t control how they shoot once they get to the line, but I do find opponent’s free throw percentage minus your free throw percentage to be interesting. Opponents are shooting 72.6% from the free throw line. As mentioned above, Winthrop is only shooting 64.3%. That’s 8.3% for the opponents.

You’ve played two games that were decided by one possession and have won them. You can call it luck or skill, your pick, but at some point you’re going to have a tough game where you’re going to need to a) hit your own free throws and b) not put the opponent on the line and let them take the result into their own hands. Winthrop is not succeeding at that. They’ve blown out most opponents, and they are that good. Trust me, I’m excited to see what they do in March and they are the going-away favorite to win this conference. But the last thing you want to do is ask yourself what-if questions about making clutch free throws late and not gifting opponents free points in crunch time. Fix those issues, and I’m going to be all-in on Winthrop’s upset potential in March.