Big South basketball enjoyed another exciting season in 2016-17, culminating in a home-floor championship for Winthrop. The Eagles earned a trip to Milwaukee for the NCAA tournament, where they fell, 76-64, to Butler. Fellow league schools Campbell, Liberty and UNC Asheville secured spots in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT), with Campbell and Liberty advancing to the round of eight.
The league hosted its 2017-18 Media Day in Charlotte on Tuesday, and the all-conference teams and projected order of finish were announced. We will reveal the teams and projected order of finish first in this space. I will also, against my better judgment, make my own projections. (You asked for it, dear readers. Be kind.)
Here’s how the voters see things (Clemons was selected Player of the Year):
(For disclosure’s sake, I did not have a vote. Yes, I was asked how I voted.)
How I Would Have Voted
Isaiah Walton, G, Longwood
The margin between Keeling, Kemrite and Pacheco-Ortiz is razor-thin. Keeling’s omission as last year’s league Freshman of the Year — that honor went to Teague — drew quite the response from Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radebaugh. Last year’s numbers tell a bit of an incomplete story.
Keeling: 17.3 pts, 7.1 rebs
Kemrite: 13.3 pts, 2.7 rebs
Pacheco-Ortiz: 8.6 pts, 3.1 rebs, 2.6 asst
Keeling carried the Bucs at times, and the last time we saw him on the floor was his 18-point, 11-board double-double against Winthrop in the Big South tournament. He and Pacheco-Ortiz were equally impactful as first-year players, though in different ways. Pacheco-Ortiz is an adept ball-handling guard, and has impeccable court vision. The Liberty point guard’s presence commonly appears off the stat sheet, but don’t try to tell his coach he’s any less valuable. Flames coach Ritchie McKay favorably compared him to London Perrantes.
Kemrite, on the other hand, gave for the good of his team last year, and saw very little drop-off in his own numbers while doing so. The natural perimeter player often found himself battling in the post on both sides of the ball, regularly limiting opposing post players’ scoring opportunities while going to the basket. The Flames have added firepower in the post this year, with Akron transfer Isaiah Williams and Bradley transfer Scottie James helping to man the back side of Liberty’s pack-line defensive look alongside returning big man Myo Baxter-Bell. It will be interesting to see the difference in Kemrite’s game as he returns to more of a wing spot in 2017-18.
As for Walton, the redshirt sophomore from Ohio provided quite the spark in his first season on the floor for the Lancers. Walton averaged nearly 14 points a game last season, adding nearly four boards and just over three assists per tilt. Walton shot 47.3 percent from the field. The Lancer guard scored in double figures in 13 of 19 Big South games, counting his team’s conference tournament outing against Charleston Southern. Longwood finished the season with just six players on its roster last year, so a full complement of guards should only help Walton grow his game.
My Predicted Order of Finish (with comments)
1. UNC Asheville
The Bulldogs return a ton of veteran talent, including the highly underrated Vannatta. The senior guard is an extension of coach Nick McDevitt on the floor, offering relentless defense and leadership on both ends of the floor. Thomas and Teague’s stardom has been proven numerous times over around the circuit. The Bulldogs play a smothering “13” (1-3-1) zone press after made baskets in key situations, and their length and ability to jump passing lanes make it tough on even the most skilled of ball handlers.
Keep an eye on: F Donovan Gilmore. The 6’7″ College of Charleston transfer sat out last year, but brings a physical post presence to a team that can certainly use it against some of the bigger teams in the league.
2 (tie). Liberty
Ritchie McKay’s squad went 14-4 in the league last year, falling only to Asheville and Winthrop twice apiece before a somewhat shocking, 56-52, loss to Radford in the Big South quarterfinals. The Flames were a highly atypical 20-for-56 from the floor in that contest, but return much of the same firepower from last season. Add to that the suffocating pack-line defense McKay learned at the proverbial feet of Virginia’s Tony Bennett, and Liberty will be a tough out every night, yet again.
Keep an eye on: G Lovell Cabbil. A number of names would fit here — including G/F Caleb Homesley, who is returning from injury — but Cabbil’s veteran presence provides a key dimension for the Flames. Cabbil averaged 9.7 points per game last year, but improved his shooting percentage by greater than six points over his freshman season.
Coach McKay says: “I’m dreaming big for our program, and the moment I don’t, they should have someone else. I think this is a place that, we want to pursue greatness, we want to pursue excellence, and we want to achieve what a champion achieves, with great integrity and doing it the right way.”
Hear the rest of Coach McKay’s interview from Media Day by clicking the link below:
2 (tie). Winthrop
Last year’s regular-season and league champs start 2017 without what coach Pat Kelsey termed a “generational player” in figurative assassin guard Keon Johnson. Luckily for Kelsey’s Eagles, he has another such player in Cooks. The 6’8″ Aussie has the rare ability to play the 1-5 spots, break down a defender off the dribble and be a defensive eraser. If he can control his emotions, he and Clemons will engage in a battle for the ages for the league’s Player of the Year crown. Cooks will enjoy a solid supporting staff, including veteran guards Bjorn and Anders Broman.
Keep an eye on: F Josh Ferguson. The 6’8″ sophomore forward played key minutes as a freshman last season, providing a key inside force while backing up Cooks and now-departed Duby Okeke. Ferguson showed flashes of low-post scoring presence, with the ability to step outside the paint and knock down a jumper. The youngster can also block and alter shots, playing right into Kelsey’s defensive preferences. “He had a big offseason. I think he’s gonna make a big jump this year,” said Kelsey of Ferguson. “We’re really counting on him to contribute in a major way.”
Coach Kelsey says: “We’ve gotta guard and rebound. I think we can score. I know we can score. We’ve got a lot of weapons, and a lot of guys that have the ability to put the ball in the basket.”
Hear the rest of Coach Kelsey’s interview from Media Day by clicking the link below:
4 (tie). Campbell
Kevin McGeehan’s Camels came on late last year, largely buoyed by the play of Clemons. The sharpshooting guard essentially took over for Campbell, scoring 26 points or greater in every game of a stretch in which his team won five of seven. Clemons’ ridiculous 51-point game against Asheville in the league tournament drew all the headlines, but great play from Marcus Burk, Cory Gensler, Andrew Eudy, Shane Whitfield and others helped to charge the Camels. All of those players are back — including Clemons, whose brief dalliance with the pros having ended is a clear boost to McGeehan and his troops.
Keep an eye on: F/C Mogga Lado. There are bigger scorers on Campbell’s roster, and a number of guys who are more flashy. Lado, however, can score when necessary, but his value rests more in his post presence. The 6’8″ senior is a physical rebounder and defender, but watch him away from the ball. He sets absolutely debilitating ball screens, freeing teammates for uncontested shots and drives to the tin.
Coach McGeehan says: “I think it (getting two first-place votes) […] gives you an indication of where you stand as a program, or where you’re viewed. It’s nice that people think we’re gonna be a pretty decent team.”
Hear the rest of Coach McGeehan’s interview from Media Day by clicking the link below:
4 (tie). Gardner-Webb
Tim Craft’s Runnin’ Bulldog squad suffered two painful losses in graduating senior Tyrell Nelson and USF transfer LaQuincy Rideau, but they seem reasonably positioned — on paper, at least — to absorb at least a portion of those losses. The ‘Dogs are incredibly deep at guard, with the rising Efianayi, sophomore Christian Turner, Liam O’Reilly, and others logging key minutes alongside Rideau last season. Stretch-three Jamaal Robateau provides a matchup nightmare offensively, and posts Brandon Miller, D.J. Laster and L’Hassane Niangane add muscle in the paint. Laster also offers many of the same dimensions Nelson provided, flashing the ability to defend the post or on-ball on the perimeter, shoot a jumper and go strong to the bucket.
Keep an eye on: G Jaheam Cornwall. The Brooklyn native prepped at Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut, and has shown the capability to score and dish in large numbers through his prep career. Craft may want the luxury of letting Cornwall acclimate himself to the collegiate game for a year, but the freshman point may force his coach’s hand.
Coach Craft says: “The ball moves a lot more with our team this year. Our guys probably like that better. In terms of our twos and our threes, guys (are) having a little more opportunity to create plays themselves off (the) pick-and-roll for people. That’s been fun for them, and I think fun to see, that ball popping around.”
Hear more of Coach Craft’s interview from Media Day by clicking the link below:
We could likely take any of these middle teams and reverse the order. Mike Jones’ club got the aforementioned big win over Liberty in last year’s tournament, before finally succumbing to Campbell in the second round. The Highlanders welcome back Polite, and that’s a huge boost to the club. Radford will shoot from distance as much as — or more than — anyone in the league, and Polite will provide an athletic inside threat for which few teams can fully account.
Keep an eye on: G Justin Cousin. The senior Highlander guard can heat up in a hurry, and is by far Jones’ biggest volume shooter from distance (78-for-213 in 2016-17). Cousin joined Polite as the only Highlander to average double digits last year (11 ppg), including a 23-point effort at Charleston Southern on 6-for-9 from beyond the arc.
7. High Point
Scott Cherry’s Panthers suffered another big loss after last season, as powerful post presence Miles Bowman, Jr. completed his eligibility. Guard Andre Fox is the lone double-digit scorer (12.8 ppg) returning of the four the Panthers recorded last year, and Cherry’s club will lean heavily on him to be a late-game threat. Fox proved quite capable of that, but will need to avoid performances like he had against Asheville (1-for-13 FG, 7 pts) and Gardner-Webb (2-for-10, 5 pts) to help his club surpass expectations.
Keep an eye on: G Jamal Wright. The sophomore point guard is the conference’s returning leader in assists, following Rideau’s transfer. The sophomore Maryland native dropped 104 dimes last year (3.6 per game), and has demonstrated himself to be quite the capable creator in Cherry’s offense. Wright’s scoring load (8 ppg) may need to get a boost, as well.
8. Charleston Southern
Barclay Radebaugh’s charges took a bit of a hit at the end of last season, as sophomore guard Armel Potter (12.7 ppg, 3.2 apg) transferred. Potter eventually landed at George Washington. This is not to say the cupboard is bare in the Buc Dome, as Keeling returns to man the Bucs’ ship. Guard Cortez Mitchell (11.1 ppg) flanks Keeling in the backcourt, joined by 5A Georgia Player of the Year Phlandrous Fleming Jr. Bruising forward Javis Howard mans the post for the Bucs. The speed with which Radebaugh’s team can come together in blending a large number of newcomers will dictate just how far it can go this year.
Keep an eye on: F Jordan Jones. Radebaugh raved about the 6-foot-8 sophomore from Baltimore prior to last season, and he provided some occasional breaks for Howard in the post. He will likely be called upon to do more this year, especially against the bigger and more physical teams in the league.
This pick has the biggest potential — and, I would argue, likelihood — to look very different at the end of the year. As referenced earlier, the Lancers closed last year with just six available players. One of those six, forward Khris Lane, has transferred east to VCU to close his collegiate career. Jayson Gee’s club will dress 17 men this year, though, which is quite the welcome departure from the injury-riddled campaign of last year. Athleticism abounds on the Lancer roster, with guards Walton and Juan Munoz joining Mount St. Mary’s transfers B.K. Ashe and Charles Glover. Forward Jahleem Montague returns from injury, joining sophomore small forward JaShaun Smith, veteran Damarion Geter, Lamar transfer Boaz Williams and returner Chris Shields in the frontcourt.
Keep an eye on: The entire team. Gee has never been afforded the luxury of playing with a full complement of players in his time at Longwood, and it will probably take a little time to see how the group gels together. The assortment of talent certainly has the capability to significantly outperform this ranking.
Coach Gee says: “I just sent this (a photo of the preseason rankings) to our team, (and said) that this is the way they think of you. That’s gonna change. […] Being where we’re at is not where we’re gonna finish. I’ve made those proclamations, and my whole mentality now (is) it’s time. It’s time to take that next step. […] I’ve got 17 guys that feel the same way. I made sure they felt the same way with what I just sent them.”
To hear the rest of Coach Gee and guard B.K. Ashe’s interview from Media Day, click play below:
The Blue Hose are somewhat of an unknown coming into this year, as legendary coach — and man — Gregg Nibert stepped down after last season. Enter longtime Wofford assistant Dustin Kerns in Clinton, and the likelihood of a similar style to that of his mentor, Terrier boss Mike Young. Kerns returns some significant pieces, including point guard Davon Bell, wings Reggie Dillard, JC Younger and Jo’Vontae Millner, forward Ruben Arroyo, and centers Armel TeTe and Stephen Osu. Kerns has a clear vision of what he wants to build in Clinton — he calls it “books and basketball” — but it will likely take some time to come to fruition.
Keep an eye on: Dillard. He is, by far, the most veteran returning Blue Hose player, and should serve to bridge the gap between staffs and philosophies. Dillard also has a knack for making key shots in his career in Clinton. The Blue Hose also took on a quite different complexion last year after Millner suffered a season-ending injury, so his health will be a storyline to follow.
Coach Kerns says: “Being able to get the guys to play confident and stretch the floor and make shots is something that we’re trying to create. […] The culture’s been good. I think it’s been a culture of guys excited about coming down to the gym every day. The only way to teach winning is winning. There’s no other way to do it.”
To hear the rest of Coach Kerns’ interview from Media Day, click the link below:
Big South teams begin their seasons on November 10. The opening weekend schedule for conference teams is as follows (all times Eastern):
Friday, November 10
Campbell at Penn State, 4:00, BTN+
Charleston Southern at Davidson, 7:00
Clarks Summit at Liberty, 7:00, Big South Network
Presbyterian at Tennessee, 7:00, SEC Network+
Georgia Southeastern at Radford (Battle 4 Atlantis), 7:00, Big South Network
Southern Illinois at Winthrop, 7:00, Big South Network
UNC Asheville at Rhode Island (Preseason NIT), 7:30pm
William & Mary at High Point, 8:00pm, Big South Network
Gardner-Webb at Miami, 8:00pm, ACC Network
Saturday, November 11
Johnson at Presbyterian, 2:00, Big South Network
Stephen F. Austin at Longwood, 3:00, Big South Network
Sunday, November 12
Radford at Ohio State, 3:30, BTN+
Charleston Southern at NC State, 4:00, ACC Network
College Hoops Digest will be here all year to cover Big South Conference hoops. Stay here for updates, and follow me on Twitter by clicking the handy “follow” button below!