Winthrop coach Pat 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.
Winthrop (23-1) and Colgate (14-1), which ranks second nationally in scoring, are two of the more exciting NCAA Tournament teams from one-bid leagues because they play fast. Now they’re ready to see how they fare against quality teams from stronger conferences.
Their first-round matchups suggest that Winthrop’s best hope for success against Villanova (16-6) is to keep doing what it’s done all season. Colgate may have to adapt its style to knock off Arkansas (22-6).
If Colgate tries to run, it could be playing right into the Razorbacks’ hands. Although Colgate ranks fifth among all NCAA Tournament teams in adjusted tempo, Arkansas is fourth in the same category.
“During the Patriot League schedule … it benefited us to play faster, get more shots up and try to run the score up,” Colgate guard Jordan Burns said. “We didn’t believe that a lot of teams had guys like ours, where we could score in a bunch of different ways every single night. Going against Arkansas, obviously we’re going to have a different game plan. It’s not a Patriot League team. It’s not to say we won’t do what we do, but it just may look a little different.”
Colgate is one of the more mysterious teams in this tournament because it has faced only five opponents all season and hasn’t played anyone outside its league. The Raiders do have some confidence based their 2019 NCAA Tournament experience, when Burns scored 32 points as Colgate was tied midway through the second half before falling 77-70 to Tennessee.
Colgate coach Matt Langel notes the Raiders don’t just run up and down the floor in all situations. They need their defense to set the pace.
“A big part of our scoring and our high number of possessions and playing fast is we’ve been able to stop the opposition,” Langel said. “We’re not one of those teams that when the other team makes a basket, we’re firing it inbounds and flying down the court and scoring in the first seven seconds. That’s not how we’re built. I think that Arkansas has been in a number of games in that way, that they’re trying to get up and up and down and up and down.”
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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