- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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ROCK HILL, S.C. -- On Saturday night, exactly 48 hours before the BracketBusters pairing selections, Winthrop head coach Gregg Marshall could be found wandering in a sea of cars, searching the Winthrop Coliseum parking lot for his black Acura.
"How many wins do I have to get in order to get my own parking space around here?" joked Marshall, repeatedly pressing buttons on his key fob.
If you're counting, Marshall has won a grand total of 182 games in eight and a half years at Winthrop. The Eagles' 2006-07 victory total stands at 17 against four losses (all to Top 25 teams), with a perfect 7-0 record in Big South conference play. That seventh league win had occurred earlier that afternoon, a hard-fought 65-63 nail-chomper over in-state rival Coastal Carolina, a team that swept Winthrop last regular season and played the Eagles to within a point of their lives in a 51-50 championship game a year ago.
But the reason why it took Marshall 10 minutes to find his car on Saturday was due to the fact that the Eagles' basketball sellout total now stands at one. For the first time ever, all the seats in the Coliseum were taken, filled with screaming fans wearing gold and red "Beat Coastal" shirts and wildly waving every piece of loose paper and fabric they could find. A decade ago, insects outnumbered fans at Winthrop games, but six league championships and several NCAA near-misses later, there isn't a place to sit or park.
"Nine years we've invested in this," said Marshall. "If it were a business, it's a stock that should have been bought in 1998 or 1999. It's a validation of what our program is, and what it's become."
What Winthrop has become is the Big South's signature school, a small-conference juggernaut with national name recognition. But with all that lofty loftiness comes the burden of sky-high expectations: anything less than breezing through the league schedule is a red-flagged disappointment. The team's recent performance (three games -- at Radford, at High Point and versus CCU -- won by a combined six points), as well as its bare survival against Coastal last March, has caused many to wonder if the Eagles are dangerously close to falling from the Big South sky.
"It's conference play," explained Marshall. "Obviously, the familiarity teams have for each other is so much greater. Sometimes you just have to gut out wins, find a way. Before we beat them [64-63 on Jan. 25], High Point was undefeated at their place and had won 15 in a row it's just a hard place to play. We just gutted that one out."
But the biggest reason why the Eagles have had to gut things out recently is sheer attrition. A foot injury to their leading scorer, 6-5 senior guard Torrell Martin (14.9 ppg), has denied them access to an array of jumpers and 3-pointers that nearly took down North Carolina in a 25-point performance back on Nov. 15. Martin hasn't played since going down after seven minutes in a home win against VMI on Jan. 16, and isn't expected to return until mid-February.
"We're down to bare bones," said Marshall. "We made a decision early on to redshirt three freshmen soon we were down to 10 scholarship players. Torrell Martin goes down, [redshirt freshman forward] Mantoris Robinson hurts his knee, that's eight. Then tonight, [junior forward] Taj McCullough gets his lip busted by an elbow and has to get that tended to seven. Then [junior guard] Antwon Harris takes four fouls. I don't have much left."
The NCAA Tournament selection committee may allow some leniency for injury matters, but there's no denying the Eagles' razor-thin margin for error in the one-bid Big South. They were able to take care of nonconference business against teams like Old Dominion, Mississippi State and East Carolina, but couldn't close the deal against a single one of the power-conference high-RPI teams they played: North Carolina (currently No. 2), Wisconsin (No. 3), Maryland (No. 27) or Texas A&M (No. 23). That's a major reason why Winthrop languishes at No. 73 in the RPI and doesn't have a seat at the table in the national at-large discussion.
"C'mon, are we really the 73rd-best team in the country?" declared Marshall. "If you're judging us by the RPI, we have no chance. But we chose this schedule, we did what we could do. Against North Carolina, we were up 12 in the second half. In the Wisconsin game [an 82-79 loss], we were the better team. Texas A&M was very, very good, and Maryland handled us. But you're talking about potential Sweet 16 [teams] there."
And that's why BracketBusters is so important to a team like Winthrop -- it's one last chance to improve and polish an NCAA résumé against an evenly matched opponent, one last opportunity to make a case in front of Hoops Nation and the selection committee.
But if there's anyone who knows how important January play is in obtaining one of those choice TV spots, it's Gregg Marshall. Last season, the Eagles found themselves in a very similar position: four nonconference losses, a 6-0 league record and in desperate need of an RPI boost. But five days before the pairing announcement, Coastal Carolina beat them by five at the Winthrop Coliseum; Winthrop was relegated to the non-TV portion of the BracketBusters schedule. While their homestanding 98-97 overtime thriller over MAC representative Northern Illinois certainly was exciting, hardly anyone got to see it. A 23-7 Winthrop team ended up as a 15th seed at the NCAA's, although it nearly beat Tennessee when it got there.
After the Coastal revenge victory, Marshall was daydreaming of a much better matchup than last year's.
"I'd love to play VCU, that's somewhere we can drive to," Marshall said when asked for his preferences. "Or Hofstra. Or maybe even Butler that's a direct flight. But [CCU head coach] Buzz [Peterson] told my beat writer before the game that we already drew Marist [MAAC, 15-6, RPI No. 133]. I don't think so."
While Peterson's speculation may just have been a sly mini-jab in what's become the Big South's best rivalry, Marshall chose not to snipe back -- instead, he put the Worldwide Leader on notice.
"I'll tell you what," Marshall said with a laugh, finger wagging. "If we don't get a TV game, you're going to have to pull me off some ESPN executive, first one I can find!"
* * *
When Monday rolled around, Winthrop received its BracketBusters travel destination: the Hammons Center in Springfield, Mo., home of the Missouri State Bears -- a 15-win team that's currently 6-5 in the tough and parity-driven Missouri Valley Conference, with a No. 39 RPI. By not repeating their January loss to Coastal Carolina from a year ago, the Eagles had earned the right to show a national audience what they could do as a participant in one of the 14 televised contests.
Upon hearing the matchup, Marshall took a deep breath, absorbed the news and scoured his internal database for "Missouri State."
"We saw them on tape early in the year when we were scouting for Wisconsin," said Marshall of his BracketBusters opponent. "And I know they beat Wisconsin [66-64 on Nov. 20]. I know it's a tough place to play, and I know about [MVC sixth-leading scorer] Blake Ahearn and how hot he can be shooting the ball. Hopefully, we'll have our own hot shooter, Torrell, back in time."
It promises to be a good, even, seesaw matchup: Missouri State's nationally ranked shooting and offensive efficiency will test Winthrop's nationally ranked defensive efficiency, while the Eagles' front line of 6-8 Phillip Williams and 6-10 Craig Bradshaw likely will force the issue for the Bears in the paint. But before Winthrop can prepare for the game itself, the Eagles are going to have to figure out how to get there.
"Travelwise, it's not what you want at this point in the season," said Marshall. "There aren't any direct flights. We're going to have to fly somewhere St. Louis? Then we'll have to find a charter to take us the rest of the way, or something."
Then again, in the quest for mid-major glory, one must bear many vehicle-related issues -- whether it's a bus rental far from home on BracketBusters Saturday, or the lack of an assigned parking spot outside your home gym.
"Still working on that one," said Marshall. "But these are all good problems to have."
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.