Are the Winthrop Eagles “This Year’s George Mason”?
Who’s the next George Mason? The question has been buzzing around college basketball circles for the past month, and the real answer is that I’m not sure we’ll see one again anytime soon.
But there certainly are a number of quality mid-majors this year, including from the Patriots’ own conference: the CAA. Drexel has a nation’s-best 13 road wins this year (including Villanova, Syracuse, and Creighton), Old Dominion has won 11 games in a row and boasts a non-conference win over Georgetown, and neither one of them won the regular season title, which went to VCU. Any one of them could make victims of two higher-seeded major conference teams and play the role of Sweet 16 Cinderella.
But I’ll take Winthrop as having the best chance at a surprise run all the way to the Final Four. The Eagles nearly knocked off two potential number one seeds already this year (Wisconsin and North Carolina). They also took down the aforementioned ODU Monarchs, and picked up a win eerily similar to George Mason’s 2006 victory over Wichita State by beating Missouri State on its home floor in the BracketBuster.
Gregg Marshall, who nearly took the head coaching job at College of Charleston over the summer, has now led Winthrop to the Big South’s automatic bid seven of the last nine years, a remarkable run that rivals Duke’s consecutive romps through the ACC Tournament.
This year’s edition of the Eagles is largely the same team that was within a Chris Lofton desperation three of knocking off second-seeded Tennessee in 2006. Gregg Marshall’s starting five features three seniors and two juniors.
Guard Torrell Martin was considered Winthrop’s star player in the non-conference season, but when he went down with an injury in Big South play, backcourt mate Michael Jenkins picked up the scoring slack, and now gives Winthrop an outstanding second option on the perimeter. And don’t forget about 6’10” Kiwi Craig Bradshaw down low, whom many feel is a potential second-round NBA draft pick.
Winthrop has the balance, upperclass leadership, and streaky perimeter shooting that can carry them to a Final Four. Is it likely? No, but Winthrop easily wins the award as the double-digit seed you least want to see in your favorite team’s region.