ROCK HILL - Winthrop coach Randy Peele has every right to bask in the glory that comes with a Big South tournament championship.
When Winthrop was 5-9, he took a lot of criticism for his team's style of play, poor record and inability to shoot. The negative comments came in the form of personal confrontations, e-mails, message board posts and letters to the editor.
One might expect Peele to blow off a little steam, now that Winthrop is headed to the NCAA tournament for the second time in his three years.
That's not his style.
"A lot of people want me to say 'I told you so,'" Peele said. "I just ask that you judge me by my results. If you are the type that needs to be patted on the back, then that isn't a leader. I go to work every day. I don't let personal stuff affect me. I block it out, focus on getting better every game."
Peele does allow for one bit of hindsight, admitting he thinks people lost sight of the schedule Winthrop played. The Eagles lost to Charlotte, Cincinnati and North Carolina State before jumping into Big South action with losses at Coastal Carolina and Charleston Southern.
One of the most telling comments came second hand. An assistant coach for an opposing team was overheard saying "They are not Winthrop any more, they are horrible."
"It was like a car wreck," Peele said. "People love to slow down to see if anyone is bleeding. People love to talk."
And that stretch of the season, the one where the naysayers were out in force? It was after that stretch that the Eagles won 10 of their next 11 games.
It is easy to believe Peele feels validation after Winthrop beat Coastal Carolina last week to win the Big South tournament, because many fans believe the 2008 NCAA team was not Peele's, but that of former coach Gregg Marshall.
Peele was an assistant under Marshall four years before taking the helm. When Marshall announced his departure, Peele was named Winthrop's head coach.
"Someone once told me, one of the hardest things to do is to follow a legend," Peele said. "Gregg Marshall is a good man. I have nothing but good feelings for him. What Gregg did here is unbelievable; winning seven titles in nine years.
"... I have worked my tail off to become a head coach," Peele said, getting on a roll. "Gregg Marshall and I, we didn't play high-major college basketball. We had to roll up our sleeves and work to get where we are. The difference between us is that he had a swagger and a presence. When he walked into the gym, you knew it."
"I'm not him. My style is different. I'm more substance over style. I'm a blue-collar guy. That's who I am. That's who I want to be."
That said, Peele has made a name for himself with the way he has closed out his three seasons. In 2007, the Eagles won eight of their last 11. Last year the team won five in a row to end the regular season. This year, Winthrop is 11-3 in the past 14 games.
"I'm really pleased with the way we did it this year," Peele said. "We've been able to grind out games. If you can't grind out games you aren't going to win. I'm never going to change that."
He repeats the phrase "grind it out" enough that you can almost hear it coming.
"We get on to him because he is a long-winded guy," said Mantoris Robinson, the Big South tournament MVP. "He knows we're just kidding. He doesn't want coaches out-coaching him.
"Coach Peele knows what he's doing. He always tells us he's up until 2 a.m. trying to scout our opponents. He wants us to be prepared."
Peele cannot wait to get to the tournament, thinking back to memories of previous tournaments. This will be his fifth NCAA appearance in six years.
"It's an unbelievable feeling on Selection Sunday when your name is called," he said. "Then you go to a mandatory practice at the site of the game. I remember walking onto floors in Spokane and Denver. You've never seen a practice so intense the day before a game.
"The day of the game is the highlight of your career. ... Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, Syracuse - we're ready to go. If you want to find out how good you are, you have to play the best."