The Winthrop Eagles are becoming the Gonzaga of the Big South.
The Eagles defeated Coastal Carolina - a team that was expected to finish eighth this year in the conference - in today's final to advance to the program's fifth Big Dance in six years and ninth in the last 12. Perhaps the Eagles learned a lesson in 2008-09. After getting to the second round of the NCAAs the year before, coach Randy Peele (right) scheduled ambitiously and was beaten down by it. Winthrop finished 11-19 and never had a sniff at dancing last year. So in 2009-10, the school scheduled down, perhaps hoping to catch fire in the conference tournament and get in the way the system permits. It worked, and they'll be back.
Player to know: Nobody on Winthrop was consider a preseason all-conference play, and with good reason, as this is a five-as-one kind of club. But Reggie Middleton leads the team in points (10.4), assists (3.0) and is second in steals with 53 this year, prior to today's game.
»Record: 19-13, 12-6 Big South
»Team colors: garnet and gold
»We're thinking: a 16-seed
»KenPom ranking: 222
»Best win: Coastal Carolina (28-6)
»Worst loss: @ Charleston Southern (13-17)
»Notable stat: Well, to be honest, Winthrop doesn't do a lot of things well - that's why Ken Pomeroy only gave them a 6.6 percent chance at winning the Big South tournament. But they do swipe the ball nearly 11 times per game. Steals are valuable currency on the big stage because they give the Little Guy much-needed chances.
»Most recent tournament history (nine total appearances):
-2008 (13-seed): L first round to Washington State, 71-40.
-2007 (11-seed): W first round over Notre Dame, 74-64; L second round to No. 3 Oregon, 75-61.
-2006 (15-seed): L first round to Tennessee, 63-61.