Washington State Cougars (24-8) vs. Winthrop Eagles (22-11)
WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
1. A Dingo Ate your Jumper Allowing only 56 points per game (good for third in the nation) in 07-08, this version of the Cougars are one that stifles on the defensive end. And assembling this team of defensive aficionados was an interesting and far flung task for the Coaches Bennett. Not one player who stepped on the court for the Cougs this year resides in the Evergreen State. And only one current Washingtonian is listed on the active roster (freshman Charlie Ernquist). In fact the Cougars recruiting base ranges from Belgrade to Auckland, and everywhere in between. Part of this can be attributed to the basketball globetrotting past of Coach/Female Forbidden Fruit Fantasy, Tony Bennett. Bennett spent three years with the Charlotte Hornets, and then played and coached in New Zealand for the North Harbor Kings until 1998. His international connections have been key in building this team, "The further away we went, the better chance we had of getting someone" Said Bennett. This was basically the tactful way of saying "it's pretty hard to sell the middle of nowhere."
2. The Triforce. The team is built around seniors Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver and Robbie Cowgill. All three have been deemed to have a "intramural" look to them, but don't be fooled, they're all skilled ballers. Weaver is a sinewy 6-6 athlete who can play any position from the 1 to the 3. He leads the team in no offensive category, but contributes with feints through the lane, creating shots for teammates. But where Weaver gets his accolades is as a shutdown perimeter defender. Second in the Pac-10 in steals, he's become a Jay Bilas favorite, who rendered this wondrous nugget "he's not a shooter, but he's a winner." Talk on Jay: talk on. Low, the team's leading scorer and 3-time Hawaii High School Player of the Year, committed to WSU without ever seeing the campus. I could see this happening going from Pullman to Hawaii, but Hawaii to Pullman? That's how much Low trusted the Bennett's coaching philosophy. And last but not least fan favorite and Pac 10 Scholar athlete of the year, Robbie Cowgill. The laid-back Cowgill has been called a "glue-guy" and is always around the ball, creating opportunities with hustle. When WSU has a fever, it's usually cured by more Cowgill. Explore that space Robbie!
3. Basket-wha!? The Pullman sports landscape has been dominated over the years by the whiz of footballs flying through the air, as well as irrational thoughts of a Mike Price return. Due to this dominance of football, basketball has traditionally been the oft forgotten runt of men's revenue sports. In some respects it still is; currently the Cougars play their games in the "Beasley Performance Arts Coliseum" (which has banners to honor NIT appearances). To avoid being lumped in with trade shows and productions of Oklahoma, the Cougar basketball team plays its games on "Friel Court." Confusing. It's also hurts your reputation as a basketball school when your three most famous former players are a Gatorade commercial staple/MJ poster boy (Craig Ehlo), a mediocre rapper/former G-Unit member who got kicked out before ever playing a minute (The Game, who might in fact be working me into a diss track right now), and Florida Marlins lefty Mark Hendrickson, who was drafted into the NBA with the 76ers in the late 90's, and is now working as a human testament to the benefits of being able to throw a baseball left handed. But with every win against traditional Pac-10 powerhouses, and every report of Tony Bennett going to a bigger school for a much bigger salary, the student body seems to sense exactly how special this team is. — Brian Tesch
Get to Know Winthrop. Winthrop University is a public school in Rock Hill, SC, across the state line from Charlotte. It's considered to be the best academic university in the state of South Carolina and one of the best public universities in the southeastern United States. Winthrop gets its name from former Massachusetts senator and congressman Robert C. Winthrop, who was the university's first major donor in the 1880s.
Winthrop hails from the mighty Big South Conference, which has been a one-bid basketball conference for its entire existence. The Eagles have dominated the recent history of the conference, making eight of the last 10 NCAA tournaments despite only one previous appearance in school history. They owe their unprecedented level of basketball success in the last decade to Gregg Marshall, who was the head coach for seven of those tourney bids. Marshall said a few years ago that he was too happy at Winthrop to leave for another job. Until, of course, he left Winthrop for another job as head coach at Wichita State. The team is now coached by longtime assistant Randy Peele. Aside form basketball, Winthrop athletics is known for its world-class Frisbee golf course. Winthrop's logo is actually one of your grandmother's toenail clippings. It's a well studied exact replica, right down to the yellow-red fungus.
Why Winthrop will bust your bracket
1. Michael Jenkins. The Kinston, NC senior leads the team with 14.3 points per game. He may be an undersized 2 guard, but he can create space for his shots, he's very effective at using screens, and can blow up for 30+ points in a game if you let him.
2. Perimeter defense. The Eagles guards play aggressively on defense, leading the Big South with 8.3 steals per game. If their opponent's point is liable to turn the ball over, or just has a bad day, Winthrop could send his team packing.
3. Depth. Considering that Winthrop is a small university in a one-bid conference, their bench is surprisingly good. The Eagles have nine players who clock at least 10 minutes per game, and the team gets about 18 points per game off the bench.
4. Experience. While this team lost some if its best players from last year (most notably Australian forward Craig Bradshaw), Winthrop return four seniors and six upperclassmen. Seniors compose the entirety of Winthrop's aforementioned backcourt.
5. For DeAndre Adams. Adams, a 5-8 point guard who played in all of Winthrop's games last season, died from complications of a car accident in May of 2007. Both the team and Winthrop fans have dedicated this season to his memory.
Why Winthrop will lose in the first round
1. Free throw shooting. The Eagles are one of the worst free throw shooting teams in college basketball, shooting only 59.5% from the line this season. Any chance of victory the Eagles would be in a very close game, and in these circumstances missed free throws could betray them.
2. Inconsistency. Even when Winthrop plays well, players like Jenkins don't always deliver consistently great performances. In five of the Eagles' seven losses, for example, Jenkins had been held to less than ten points. Winthrop has no chance of winning if players like Jenkins, Taj McCullough, and Chris Gaynor suddenly go cold.
3. No more surprises. By now, any team who draws the Eagles will be keen for the upset, and will have enough game film through the last few years to plan an effective strategy. — Mike White