Just where is Winthrop? Back in the NCAA tournament, for starters.

Xavier — of Cincinnati, for those unaware — had just forged a second-round win over the third-seeded Georgetown of Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, 74-71, causing another certain big fellow who coached Georgetown (you know the one) to note Xavier’s pressing and trapping, express surprise others hadn’t used that tack and pinpoint, “We’re not the greatest passing team in the world.” Meanwhile, the kid running to the car just wanted to hear Xavier’s longtime play-by-play maestro, Andy MacWilliams, retell what all had seen already.

“The Xavier brand grew exponentially and grew nationwide that day in March,” Pat Kelsey would say 27 years after that, after he had aged from 14 to 41, played for Wyoming and then Xavier, and become a head coach.

By now he’s 45, he’s back in Indianapolis, and he’s bringing one of those teams damned-good enough to shed some anonymity. Of course Winthrop, the team Kelsey helms for a ninth season, is already a mainstay in the addled minds of bracket savants. It has qualified for 11 of the previous 22 tournaments, and it had a big day in Spokane, Wash., in 2007 when it had Gregg Marshall as a coach and got 24 points from a Kiwi, Craig Bradshaw, and 20 points and 11 rebounds from an American from South Carolina, Torrell Martin, to upend Notre Dame, 74-64. Winthrop stands 1-10 in NCAA tournament play, but count this among those rare events where 1-10 can be a sign of protracted accomplishment.

Winthrop remains among the fold of one of the charms of March Madness, its “Where’s That” teams — teams that can sound mystical because they don’t have their locations attached to their names but also don’t have big profiles like Villanova, Gonzaga or Baylor, teams casual fans might spot and go, “Where’s that?”

Among the “Where’s That” group in this 2021 field, the shiniest is Winthrop. On all the charter flights bringing in all the teams and all the records to this one city for this one odd pandemic event, Winthrop brought the No. 2 winning percentage (.958), behind only Gonzaga (1.000). It’s a program that has gone 42-4 in its past 46, won its Big South tournament games, 83-54, 82-61 and 80-53, and missed the 2020 NCAA tournament only because that tournament didn’t occur.

In other words, the flight that brought Winthrop (23-1) enabled its passengers that beautiful chance in life to look out a jet window and go, “Wow.”

“Everyone was excited,” said Charles Falden, a senior guard from Richmond. “I mean, just the whole 25. Just all of us.”

“A hundred percent,” said Kyle Zunic, a senior guard from Wollongong, Australia. “Just sitting there looking out the window and looking around the plane and just seeing us on that flight was really cool.”

So, Winthrop, where’s that? It’s in Rock Hill, S.C., part of a Charlotte metropolitan area so ravenous that it pays no mind to state lines. Winthrop has 5,576 students or so. Falden likes the art-school aspect of Winthrop, helping make it “a diverse school” and “unique,” and Zunic said, “I can talk to anyone when I’m there and you’ll probably know them and they’ll probably know you.” It began in 1886 when a Boston-based patron and Harvard graduate, Robert C. Winthrop, approved the funding to hatch the school. His gift: $1,500. Many, many single bills at famed St. Elmo Steak House here have exceeded that total.

While the return flights can come around rapidly for some No. 12 seeds, the intellectuals are figuring that might not be the case for Winthrop, whose fifth-seeded opponent, Villanova, has gotten justified sympathy and wagering doubts because of recent injuries. In a field that has its first unbeaten entry since Kentucky in 2015 — Gonzaga at 26-0 — Winthrop might have provided a second but for a 165-second swatch of difficulty Jan. 29.

That was the night its 52-44 lead with 4:32 remaining against UNC Asheville became a 55-54 deficit with 1:47 left, leading to a 57-55 defeat.

“Right after that loss,” Falden said, “we went back to the drawing board. … While we all would have liked to go undefeated, at the same time, we need to outrebound everybody,” among other forms of hustle.

Hustle would be among Winthrop’s traits alongside depth, talent and, of course, know-how, with 6-foot-7 senior guard Chandler Vaudrin standing seventh in the land in assists per game (6.9), second in this 68-team field (behind sixth-place Jason Preston of Ohio). And man oh man oh man times 11, there’s depth.

It makes Kelsey a busy sideline manager. Fully 11 players average more than 10 minutes per game for the Eagles.

“It’s good for us,” Falden said, “because we play at a fast pace.”

“The coaches trust every single one of us,” Zunic said. “We talk a lot about trust. I know I can give everything I’ve got out on the floor and get as tired as possible, and I know that someone’s going to come in and give the same effort and intensity that I just gave. … You high-five them going to the substitute table and know.”

“You can go in, you can play hard, and wear down a team,” Falden said, “and you know you have depth behind you that can come in and do the same thing.” He and they can play by now in all of the five-man combinations, and Falden called his teammates “hard-playing, hard-working, extremely talented and relentless.”

It might even sound more than somewhat like a “Where’s That” team from 31 years ago.

Source: WP