The year to win

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

ROCK HILL, S.C. – Another clipped net was hanging out of the pocket of his pin-striped suit – the seventh in nine years for Winthrop’s Gregg Marshall – and this time he wasn’t shying away from anything or any challenge.

The last six trips to the NCAA tournament had resulted in six defeats – “All I’ve done is cry on the podium,” Marshall said.

So even here in the Big South, which Winthrop had just finished annihilating with an 84-81 victory over Virginia Military on Saturday for the league’s automatic bid, the expectations game was getting played.

Everyone agrees it’s time for Winthrop to win a game in the NCAAs, and understand this, at 28-4 and with three starters that were attracting attention from a host of NBA scouts courtside, the Eagles undoubtedly have the team capable of doing it.

“Sweet Sixteen at least,” VMI coach Duggar Baucom told Marshall post-game and he wasn’t being a jerk. He was being honest.

“Winning games in the NCAA tournament for us has become (like the) Super Bowl championship (was) to Peyton Manning,” Marshall said. “It doesn’t mean before he was a bad quarterback. But that was all people wanted to talk about.”

Marshall let the words hang in the air a second.

“I know this,” he said. “If we play the way we are capable, we are capable of doing it.”

The dapper, demanding coach loved every bit of this sunny, sensational Saturday afternoon just south of Charlotte. Even in a business dominated by Type A personalities they don’t get anymore hard-charging than this 44-year-old.

It was exactly what was required to turn this dormant program into a big sensation here – where a wild, overflow crowd of 6,250 fans rocked Rock Hill Saturday.

He had arrived in 1998 to find a team coming off eight consecutive losing seasons. That first year he delivered an NCAA tournament berth and it’s been a near annual occurrence since. But as good as his past teams have been he’s never had one like this.

Winthrop is on an 18-game win streak and just swept the Big South with a perfect 14-0 regular season mark and three more wins in the league tournament. In non-conference games the Eagles beat Mississippi State, Missouri State and Old Dominion, all on the road.

Perhaps just as impressive is that their only losses have been to Wisconsin (in overtime), Texas A&M, North Carolina and Maryland.

And the Eagles have significant talent. Versatile forward Craig Bradshaw and high-scoring guard Torrell Martin, both seniors, could be drafted in June. Junior guard Michael Jenkins is now on everyone’s radar and sixth man Taj McCullough would start at most places.

“We don’t settle in recruiting here at Winthrop,” said Marshall, a South Carolina native who has mined this region for talent. “We try to get guys who can develop physically and skill wise to compete with the big boys and try to make some noise in the NCAA tournament.

“You (have to) feel blessed if you have three guys being looked at by (the NBA) at this level. (But) you saw these kids. They are long, athletic and skilled. And most important, they are coachable.”

Marshall almost left this group last summer, accepting the job at the College of Charleston for 24 hours before deciding to come back. He wasn’t regretting it for a minute Saturday. One day a smart high major team is going to send a Brinks truck down here to lure this guy away, but until then he looks set in South Carolina.

Now only if they can win a tourney game. And that’s where seeding makes a difference. Most years it hasn’t been too favorable. Winthrop’s been in the play-in game. It’s drawn Duke. It’s been a 16 and a 15 and other hopeless spots.

But with this resume, the fans and players were talking up a 10 seed, which would provide a real chance at advancement. Marshall would have none of it. He’s never one to stop pushing and dreaming, so he wasn’t stopping now.

“A four or a five seed,” he said.

The postgame press conference erupted in laughter. But Marshall’s face didn’t change. He wasn’t joking.

“Seriously, who’s beaten us? All four of them are in the top 14 of the RPI. A four or a five? Yeah, then we’ll really start talking about advancing in the tournament.”

Someone mentioned that the Big South was, by some measures, ranked as the 29th best league in the country. There are only 31 leagues, which means it isn’t a mid-major, it is a low major.

“Did we lose to any of those teams in the Big South?” he said. “If we had it would be different. We’d win a game and our RPI would go down. It doesn’t make sense. Why aren’t we going to be a five or six seed? Why do we have to be a 10 seed? If so, give me the 36 teams better in the country and let’s play.”

Oh, they are going to play and the poor team that draws Winthrop isn’t going to be pleased when they start watching film. It’ll be worse when they stare into the Eagles' eyes and see a group that is somehow experienced, confident and yet, oh so hungry.

All powered by a coach who likes attacking a challenge head-on.

“It’s going to happen,” said Marshall, pressing on. “There’s no time like the present. There’s no time like right now.”