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Introducing Cinderella: Winthrop wins the Big South

Big South Championship Basketball

Winthrop guard Micheal Anumba, right, hugs guard Kyle Zunic as they celebrate after winning the Big South tournament championship over Hampton in an NCAA college basketball game in Rock Hill, S.C., Sunday, March 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)


Hampton, which finished 8-10 in the Big South and is ranked outside the top-300 on KenPom, looked like it might pull a monster upset in the Big South final to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016. The Pirates led Winthrop, the conference tournament’s two seed, for the league’s automatic bid by 15 before the midway point of the first half.

It didn’t hold up, though.

The Eagles dominated the second half to put Hampton away and claim a 76-68 victory and their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2017 with the Big South’s automatic bid. Winthrop shot 66 percent from the field in the second half to pull away. Freshman DJ Burns scored 16 points in 18 minutes for Winthrop.

LEAGUE: Big South

COACH: Pat Kelsey

RECORD: 24-10, 15-3 Big South

RELATED: Bubble Watch | Bracketology | Conference Tournaments


  • NET: 146
  • KENPOM: 138
  • TORVIK: 160

PROJECTED SEED: Winthrop won 14-straight from December into February, but lost three games - Radford, Gardner Webb and Hampton - over the last month of the season, and the Eagles are likely destined for a 16 seed.

WHO DID THEY BEAT?: There’s no question that Winthrop’s best win of the season came in November when they went on the road to defeat St. Mary’s 61-59 in Moraga. They played East Tennessee State, Duke, TCU and Furman tough, but to defeats as well.


Certainly the competition in the Big South isn’t going to intimidate any of the teams Winthrop is likely to be matched up against in the NCAA tournament, but the Eagles did rip through 14-straight games this winter. If nothing else, that’s a sign of being able to consistently play at a high level. The Eagles play at a fast pace, and if they get the right matchup, they might be able to dictate tempo enough to create some problems for a high-major with their ability to score near the basket.


It’s been a long time since Winthrop played a fellow NCAA tournament team, and the competition they’re likely to face - probably a top-two seed - is going to be a major upgrade from the programs they’ve been going up against for the better part of three months. The Eagles also aren’t elite any any area, which makes pulling an upset against a more talented team all the more difficult. The biggest issue, though, is their defense, which ranks 250th nationally in effective field goal percentage.


Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey first came into your life as Skip Prosser’s point guard at Xavier for three seasons in the late 1990s that resulted in two NCAA tournaments for the Musketeers. After assistant stops at Xavier and Wake Forest, he took over Winthrop in 2013 and has turned in four 20-win seasons with this being the second NCAA tournament appearance for his Eagles. The 44-year-old could be a name that gets mentioned for mid-major gigs during this go-round of the coaching carousel after getting Winthrop another automatic bid. He reportedly was close to replacing John Brannen at Northern Kentucky last spring.


Like any team facing a No. 1 or No. 2, Winthrop is going to have a heck of a time trying to get into the second round. With just one senior in the rotation, though, this could be a great dress rehearsal for 2020-21 when the Eagles theoretically could be even better with added experience. If it’s going to happen for Winthrop this season, though, the Eagles probably will want a contrasting style matchup, forcing walk-it-up teams like Kansas, Baylor, San Diego State or Dayton to push the pace, even if that might expose the talent gap.