COLUMBIA (AP) - Winthrop men's basketball head coach Pat Kelsey smiles as he considered the nearly 2-year journey to play in the NCAA Tournament.
"We did it the hard way," Kelsey said.
Kelsey and the Eagles won the Big South Conference tournament in 2020 and were among a dozen teams that earned bids and were eagerly awaiting their chance to play. Instead, the start of the coronavirus pandemic robbed those teams of that opportunity - leaving them a full year to dream, scheme and hope for another opportunity.
Just four schools - Gonzaga, Liberty, Utah State and the Eagles - from that group of 12 reached this year's field of 68.
"To have the disappointment that we had a year ago and to not be deterred, to have the type of focus, determination and approach they had since they got out of quarantine," Kelsey said Tuesday. "This is a very driven team."
Winthrop, which owns a 23-1 record and is the 12th seed in the South Region, faces No. 5 seed Villanova on Friday. The Wildcats are 16-6.
Clemson also begins play on Friday. The Tigers, who are in the tournament for the first time since 2018, are the No. 7 seed in the Midwest Regional and will take on No. 10 seed Rutgers. Clemson is 16-7 while Rutgers is 15-11.
Clemson is led by Aamir Simms, who is a second team All-Atlantic Coast Conference performer. He leads Clemson in scoring at 13.3 points per game, rebounding at 6.2. And assists at 2.7. Hunter Tyson is averaging 7.4 points and 4.3 rebounds. He is shooting 41.7% from 3-point range.
Rutgers is in the tournament for the first time since 1991.
Rutgers, though, went 20-11 and seemed a safe bet to make the 2020 field before it was waved off the court moments before its Big Ten Tournament opener. The Scarlet Knights pushed forward this season with Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker and Jacob Young to end the drought.
"None of us were alive," guard Paul Mulcahy said. "But there's also been a lot of people who have supported the program for 30 years through the ups and downs. I'm just really happy for those people, that they finally get to experience this as well."
Winthrop believes the same thing. Kelsey, the team's ninth-year coach, could see this past spring that players weren't hanging their heads about what they lost, but looking forward to what was possible.
The Eagles won their first 16 games before falling, 57-55, to UNC Asheville on Jan. 29. Winthrop ran off seven straight wins heading into the NCAAs, including an 80-53 victory over Campbell for the Big South Tournament crown.
Kelsey says he learned his philosophy of basketball while playing for the late Skip Prosser at Xavier in the 1990s.
"He had a famous quote that he said all the time," Kelsey recalled. "The older he got, the faster he wanted to play. I think that applies to me."
The 45-year-old Kelsey watched his Winthrop squad win the Big South while ranking 11th among all Division I teams in adjusted tempo, according to college basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy. Adjusted tempo measures the number of possessions a team would have per 40 minutes against an opponent with an average tempo. The only NCAA Tournament teams ranked higher in that category are Gonzaga and Alabama.
The Eagles' Chandler Vaudrin, a 6-foot-7-inch point guard who leads the NCAA with three triple-doubles, believes his team's latest run was fueled as much by their lone loss as all their victories. "That loss, I think, really propelled us in the second half of the year to continue to grow and continue to play good basketball"
"Now, we're at the same place" as last year, Vaudrin said. "We did what we needed to do."
The Winthrop-Villanova game represents a contrast of styles. Villanova ranks 320th ahead of adjusted tempo.
Winthrop has 11 different guys who play at least 11 minutes per game, and Chandler Vaudrin is the only one playing over 22.4 minutes per game. Villanova plays a much smaller rotation and is adapting to the loss of injured guard Collin Gillespie.
"Matchups are a big deal," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "We expect this to be a really difficult game because we don't play with that much depth. We don't play with as much speed. And they do, and they're good at it."
Villanova's own style obviously also has produced plenty of success, including NCAA titles in 2016 and 2018. Winthrop looks forward to testing itself against that standard.
"Basketball's fun because there's always different styles," Kelsey said. "It's a battle of wills. They have a style. We have a style. They have a thing. We have a thing. They have a brand, if you will. We have a brand. It's the battle of wills as to whose strength is going to play out."
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