Tourney-tested Winthrop

In September it was announced that Winthrop will host a 2006 ESPN Bracket Buster game on Feb. 18.

There could not be a more appropriate event for the Winthrop to appear in after its performance in the first round of the 2005 NCAA tournament.

The No. 14 seed Eagles gave Gonzaga all it could handle before bowing out 74-64. The final score was not an accurate indicator of how well the Eagles palyed. They led at halftime, 35-33, and the score was tied four times in the final 20 minutes.

"We lost it at the end in the last three or four minutes," said senior James Shuler. "We came away thinking if we had done things differently we could have won. But it was a blessing in disguise. It humbled us and let us know that we can be beaten."

That did not happen very often last year. The Eagles compiled the best overall record in the history of the Big South Conference, 27-6, and went 15-1 in league games. The Rock Hill, S.C., school returns all five starters from that team and 12 of its top 13 players.

"That means we didn't have to start over," said Shuler, when asked about the low turnover. " … Usually there has been a new crop of players every year and we have to start over and teach the new players. This year we went over a few things but the nucleus is still here."

The core of the team is Torrell Martin. Against the Bulldogs the junior guard scored 22 points on six three-pointers, both career highs. Martin was voted the preseason conference Player of the Year after being named first team All-Big South last season and averaging 13.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.

"If I get it in the gap, pull the defenders in and then kick it out to him, put three on the scoreboard," Shuler said. "He is a spot-on shooter. He is a slasher, a great rebounder and great teammate."

Shuler was also a member of the preseason all-conference team after being named first team all-conference in 2004-'05 and averaging 12.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game.