Big South Conference play is nearly upon us — league games start Saturday — and we should be in for yet another incredible year.
Here’s a look at the league entering conference play, in order of the league’s current official standings:
1. LIBERTY (9-4)
Best win: 79-66 at Wake Forest (72nd on KenPom)
Worst loss: 64-48 vs. Fort Wayne in New Orleans Classic (157 KenPom)
Leading scorer: G Lovell Cabbil (13 ppg)
Thoughts: The Flames had big expectations coming into the season, and have done little to quiet the hopes of seeing themselves in an NCAA bracket for the first time since their miraculous run in 2013. Redshirt sophomore Scottie James has been a huge boost to the club, as the Bradley transfer is LU’s second-leading scorer (12.7 ppg), and leads in rebounding at 8.8 per tilt. Cabbil and fellow guard Ryan Kemrite are the two players Ritchie McKay has played greater than 30 minutes per game through non-league play, and the increased workload has paid off.
Keep an eye on: Turnover margin. The Flames are just plus-one in turnover margin through the non-league slate, and McKay is a subscriber to Dick and Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense. Liberty was nearly plus-four last season, a year in which it won 14 Big South contests.
2. WINTHROP (6-5)
Best win: 93-74 at Furman (129 KenPom)
Worst loss: 76-61 to Southern Illinois (345 KenPom)
Leading scorer: F Xavier Cooks (16.2 ppg)
Thoughts: As the Eagles look to defend their Big South regular-season and tournament titles from last season, it’s really tough to get a read on Pat Kelsey’s club. Winthrop has logged just three D1 victories (an 86-61 drubbing of South Carolina State and an 88-80 victory at Alabama State the others), while suffering losses to a group of solid road foes (a four-point game at Colorado State which arguably should have gone the other way, a beatdown by Auburn for which Cooks was suspended, a late loss at Georgia and a game at VCU in which the Rams outplayed WU for the game’s entirety). Cooks is one of two Eagles averaging in double figures, while also snagging 9.2 rebounds per contest. Guard Anders Broman joins Cooks in that category, scoring 13.5 per game.
Keep an eye on: Rebounding. Kelsey has mentioned the Eagles’ need to be authoritative in the paint on many occasions early in the year, and with good reason. Winthrop opponents are pulling down nearly 40 boards per game, versus the Eagles’ 38.7. The loss of forwards Josh Davenport and Tevin Prescott, along with center Duby Okeke, after last year has created the opportunity for new players to step in and shoulder the load. They’ll need those boards in a hurry in league play.
3(t). PRESBYTERIAN (7-6)
Best win: 75-73 vs. UNC Greensboro (108 KenPom)
Worst loss: 78-58 at VMI (326 KenPom)
Leading scorer: G Reggie Dillard (17.2 ppg)
Thoughts: Everyone saw this coming, right? The Blue Hose won just five games last year, a season after which legendary coach — and incredible man — Gregg Nibert stepped down. Enter long-time Wofford assistant Dustin Kerns on the sidelines in Clinton, and Presbyterian has embraced Kerns’ “books and basketball” mantra. Kerns’ club logged its first-ever five-game win streak at the Division I level, and has taken six of its last seven. Dillard and guard Davon Bell, two of the several key holdovers from Nibert’s final squad, have paced the Hose early on. JUCO transfer — and former Florida A&M player — Francois Lewis has run a lot of the PC offense through the high post, and guard J.C. Younger has played every contest thus far after being limited to just 14 outings last year due to injury. All four players are averaging in double figures thus far, and their production has been a huge boon to Kerns’ team.
Keep an eye on: Jo’Vontae Millner’s health. Millner was the lone Presbyterian player to average double digits last season, scoring 10.8 per game before his season ended due to injury. The sophomore has logged just seven minutes this season, and as much as the Blue Hose have surpassed expectations to this point, another dynamic scorer would be quite the welcome addition.
3(t). RADFORD (7-6)
Best win: 72-62 (OT) vs. UC Davis in Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic (168 KenPom)
Worst loss: 77-74 at Elon (185 KenPom)
Leading scorer: F Ed Polite Jr. (11.5 ppg)
Thoughts: The Highlanders are really tough to read early, seemingly alternating wins and losses through the first 13. Mike Jones’ squad has won its last two, however, leaving its trip to Las Vegas on a high note. Just three of those 13 games have taken place in the friendly confines of Radford’s Dedmon Center; the Highlanders have put just two of eight “true” road games in the left column. Radford will snap its tie with Presbyterian on the road in the Templeton Center Saturday, before returning home for a challenging two-game home stand against league heavyweights Winthrop and UNC Asheville. Polite Jr. has been his usual star self thus far, augmenting his scoring with 7.3 rebounds per contest. Guard Carlik Jones joins Polite in double figures, averaging 10.9 per game, despite starting just four times.
Keep an eye on: The THREEEEEEE BALLLLLLL, to borrow the legendary sound that has long rung through the Dedmon Center after a made Highlander triple. Radford loves to pop from distance, having taken 300 treys through 13 games. The Highlanders are shooting 33 percent from three, versus opponents 33.8 percent. When Radford is on from beyond the arc, as they were in last year’s 16-for-33 outing at Winthrop, games can be won from distance. When they struggle, as they did in shooting 2-for-19 against Winthrop in Radford last year, the story can have quite a different finish.
3(t). UNC Asheville (7-6)
Best win: 67-60 at UNC Greensboro (108 KenPom)
Worst loss: 76-72 vs. Western Carolina (286 KenPom)
Leading scorer: G/F MaCio Teague (15 ppg)
Thoughts: Nick McDevitt’s club was expected to do big things this season, with Teague and Ahmad Thomas pacing the Bulldogs. Asheville has been tough to decipher early — like Radford — and has paired significant wins over schools like Monmouth and Wofford with blowout defeats against Clemson and Rhode Island. There’s also the matter of that head-scratching loss to the Catamounts, much like Winthrop’s puzzling home-opener defeat at the hands of Southern Illinois. Teague and Thomas have led McDevitt’s club, as expected, and coach-on-the-floor point guard Kevin Vannatta has also had his expected productive output. Two regular Asheville starters average fewer than six points per game, though, and that’s a problem that needs to be immediately corrected.
Keep an eye on: Two things, actually. Turnovers often lead to transition buckets for Asheville, particularly out of their smothering “13” (1-3-1) full-court zone press. The Bulldogs are minus-1.5 in turnover margin through 13 games. There is also a significant decrease in scoring past the top three, with players outside those top scorers contributing shy of 35 combined points per game, on average. Though rotations tighten as conference play begins, consistent pressure valves for Teague and Thomas will be a key point of focus.
6. CAMPBELL (6-6)
Best win: 85-78 at Stetson (311 KenPom)
Worst loss: 69-66 at East Carolina (302 KenPom)
Leading scorer: G Chris Clemons (23.2 ppg)
Thoughts: Clemons is picking up where he left off last year, averaging 23.2 points per game in nine outings (eight starts) for the Camels. That average is good enough for 11th-best among NCAA scorers. The all-everything guard paces four of Kevin McGeehan’s scorers averaging in double figures through the first 12 outings this season. Another year for veteran scorers Marcus Burk, Shane Whitfield and Cory Gensler in McGeehan’s offense has paid huge dividends, as the trio pours in 40 per contest. It’s tough to really evaluate where Campbell currently stands, though, with three wins against sub-300 KenPom teams and three against non-D1s. The Camels’ losses have run the gamut, from a really solid Penn State team (42nd in KenPom) to an East Carolina team that has already dispatched coach Jeff Lebo.
Keep an eye on: Scoring. The Camels are 37th in the land (second in the Big South, behind Winthrop) in scoring, notching 83.8 points per game. Opponents are averaging just 72.3 against Campbell. McGeehan’s charges put up some lofty totals last season in playing for a Big South championship and advancing deep into the CIT, but the Camels can ill afford prolonged cold streaks like those that plagued them early in last year’s conference slate.
7(t). CHARLESTON SOUTHERN (5-6)
Best win: 64-62 (OT) at Illinois State (140 KenPom)
Worst loss: 91-88 (OT) at South Carolina State (344 KenPom)
Leading scorer: G Christian Keeling (18.3 ppg)
Thoughts: Multiple losses to sub-300 KenPom teams appear on the Bucs’ schedule, but so does that sneaky-good win at top-tier MVC club Illinois State. Charleston Southern is integrating a lot of new talent into its club, while battling through injuries that have forced star scorers Keeling, Phlandrous Fleming and Cortez Mitchell to miss time at various points. CSU won four in a row, then lost four in a row, and won its most recent outing. The more coach Barclay Radebaugh can get his high-powered stars on the floor at the same time, the more capable his charges will be of quickly coming together as a unit.
Keep an eye on: Perimeter defense and free throws. CSU has hit on just 33.3 percent of its trey attempts (75-for-225), while allowing opponents to shoot 37 percent (112-for-303). More problematic, though, is that the Bucs have connected on just 65.6 percent of shots from the line, versus opponents’ 74 percent. These are the minor details that decide games.
7(t). HIGH POINT (5-6)
Best win: 100-66 vs. William & Mary (194 KenPom)
Worst loss: 79-77 at The Citadel (321 KenPom)
Leading scorer: G Andre Fox (17 ppg)
Thoughts: The Panthers have won just one game away from the Millis Center in five tries early, but have been competitive in most; the lone exception was a 31-point thrashing by Tennessee in Knoxville in which the Volunteers started incredibly hot and High Point could never draw close. The loss at The Citadel was less than ideal, but the club played decently in losses at Charlotte, Pittsburgh and Charleston thereafter. The health of redshirt sophomore Jahaad Proctor has also been a huge key for the Panthers. The Iona transfer returned to action in his club’s most recent game after missing a number of contests with an ankle injury, pouring in 16 points in a 72-61 win over Western Carolina.
Keep an eye on: Perimeter shooting. High Point is knocking down 39.3 percent of its tries from beyond the arc thus far, including two players shooting 50 percent or greater (Fox 56.1 percent, Proctor 50). If the Panthers can connect on perimeter tries at a consistent clip, this could draw opposing defenses away from the basket, allowing for more drives into the paint.
9. GARDNER-WEBB (5-8)
Best win: 80-79 at Hampton (267 KenPom)
Worst loss: 106-99 (3OT) vs. Jacksonville in Wright State Invitational Thanksgiving Classic (337 KenPom)
Leading scorer: G David Efianayi (17.1 ppg)
Thoughts: The Runnin’ Bulldogs opened the year with a brutal schedule, though for noble reasons. GWU coach Tim Craft mentioned the desire to allow many of his players from Florida to have a chance to play near their homes, so the ‘Dogs played their first three games in the Sunshine State. Losses to Miami, Florida and UCF followed, but Craft’s side usually benefits from the early challenge when tournament time comes around. GWU has shown flashes of what the club could be, fending off Wofford in an exhibition matchup and shooting north of 67 percent in a victory over USC Upstate. The Big South is no walk in the park, but at least Craft’s club won’t be lining up opposite those Florida schools, Auburn and Maryland night after night.
Keep an eye on: Ball movement. Craft told me at Media Day that the ‘Dogs offense would feature the ball moving around more, and his club’s 192 assists on 368 makes (14.8 per game) bear that out, to a degree. The Runnin’ Bulldogs will find the sledding even tougher than usual if the offense gets stagnant, with a season-opener against Liberty and road games at Campbell, Winthrop and Asheville before the end of January.
10. LONGWOOD (3-10)
Best win: NA (all three wins against non-D1 schools)
Worst loss: 81-70 at VMI (326 KenPom)
Leading scorer: G Isaiah Walton (17.2 ppg)
Thoughts: Seeing Walton as the leading scorer is somewhat informative of the Lancers’ record, in a way, as the star guard has missed four games due to injury. Injuries have terribly hampered Jayson Gee’s Longwood team early, with just four players having played in each of their team’s tilts. The losses seem particularly damaging this year, with Gee having his deepest roster during his time in Farmville. The Lancers have not defeated a D1 program this season, and have games at Asheville and Liberty among their first five in the circuit. Longwood could, quite honestly, use some good fortune, and finishing those first five games above .500 would be just what the doctor ordered.
Keep an eye on: Turnovers. The Lancers are positioned worse than most to be able to absorb forced — or unforced — errors, and they find themselves minus-3.4 in turnover margin. Longwood is also forcing two fewer steals per contest than it surrenders (6.5 to 8.5), so ball control will be a requirement if it wants to stay in games.
This Week’s Schedule (all times Eastern and telecasts over the Big South Network, unless otherwise noted)
Saturday, Dec. 30
High Point at Winthrop, 2
Campbell at UNC Asheville, 2 (also WMYA-TV)
Radford at Presbyterian, 4
Liberty at Gardner-Webb, 4:30
Longwood at Charleston Southern, 5:30
Tuesday, Jan. 2
Charleston Southern at Liberty, 7 (also LFSN/ESPN3)
Wednesday, Jan. 3
Gardner-Webb at Campbell, 7
UNC Asheville at High Point, 7
Presbyterian at Longwood, 7
Winthrop at Radford, 7