We’ve made it through a week of play in the Big South, and as you may recall from our look at the league’s non-conference results — and our years of covering the league, really — the Big South never goes quite according to plan. Let’s take a look at some of what has unfolded through the first week, after we reveal the current standings:
Radford could be a problem: Mike Jones’ Highlanders are atop the league standings, and he’s not really having it. Yet.
Early-season bracketology sites (and, let’s face it, Coach Jones is right about projections) have the Highlanders NCAA-bound for the first time since 2009. North Carolina hammered Radford that year, 101-58, in a first-round matchup in Greensboro. There’s a lot to like about this year’s club; redshirt freshman guard Carlik Jones has already been named the league’s Freshman of the Week four times, and adds a playmaking dimension for whom opponents must account. Forward Ed Polite is still the uncontrollable monster he’s always been, putting up double-doubles in his first two league games.
The dominant Radford forward followed a 24-point, 15-board performance at Presbyterian with a 23-point, 12-rebound outing in a home win over Winthrop Wednesday night. To be fair, though, as good as the Highlanders were in the first half of that victory, they skidded to the finish line. Winthrop outscored Radford, 48-32, in that second half after being down 22 at the interval. If Jones’ club gets a win against nearly-universal league favorite Asheville on Saturday and knocks off Charleston Southern Tuesday, all eyes will be on Boiling Springs next Friday night, as it travels to face Gardner-Webb. Speaking of the ‘Dogs…
Gardner-Webb’s early scheduling is paying dividends: After a non-league slate that led many — including myself — to wonder aloud if coach Tim Craft may be crazy, the fruits of that scheduling are showing through his team’s first two games. At the risk of quoting myself here:
The Runnin’ Bulldogs have secured wins over a Liberty squad that won 14 games in the league last year — and which looks every bit as competitive this year — and a Campbell club that returns almost its entire group that contested for a league title last season. The former came with All-Conference performer David Efianayi scoring just six points on 2-for-7 shooting, while star forward D.J. Laster played just 16 minutes and scored two points while battling the flu. Guard Liam O’Reilly poured in 27 of his team’s 58 in that victory.
The win at Campbell came in a game in which Craft’s club never led until roughly three minutes into extra time, and it had to overcome an 18-point deficit to even send it to those five bonus minutes. Efianayi nicely bounced back, scoring a career-high 31 on 11-of-18 shooting. O’Reilly added 15, with Laster and freshman point guard Jaheam Cornwall — who himself knocked down arguably the biggest shot of the game in hitting a key triple — adding 13 apiece.
The stat about the 2016-17 ‘Dogs has been repeated ad infinitum, in that they finished 1-6 in one-possession and overtime games. It’s still very early yet, but this club has clearly developed some mental toughness from last year’s setbacks. Speaking of finishing…
Don’t worry — too much — about Campbell: Campbell is 0-2 in league play, as you saw above, falling to Asheville and Gardner-Webb by a combined eight points. Camels coach Kevin McGeehan made a well-taken point about his team’s ability to finish in his postgame comments after the Gardner-Webb loss.
McGeehan’s club faces Winthrop Saturday, and what was already a game with a lot of juice, being a rematch of last year’s title game, suddenly has much more urgency. The Eagles want to rinse away the taste of the Radford loss, in which their biggest bugaboo (rebounding) again surfaced, while the Camels will be looking to avoid an 0-3 start in the league. 0-3 is hardly insurmountable, but Campbell really wants to avoid being in a play-in game again this season and having to ask for 40 extra minutes from its somewhat depth-challenged core.
Stars of the Week
We’ve already mentioned Polite, Efianayi and O’Reilly, so here are a couple more:
Bjorn Broman, Winthrop: The Eagle guard followed a 14-point, seven-rebound performance (with a funny response from his coach about his lone offensive rebound, which can be found in my postgame press video from that game story) in the win over High Point with a career-high 29 points on 10-for-13 shooting (7-for-9 from three) in the loss to Radford. The Minnesota native has been asked to be more of an on-ball defender and ball-handler during his time at Winthrop — understandably so, with Keon Johnson in the program — and is now living up to the reputation of a sharpshooter with which he arrived in Rock Hill.
Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz, Liberty: The Flames’ dynamic guard has built on his impressive season from last year, and his outing Tuesday against Charleston Southern was another in a string of great games. Pacheco-Ortiz poured in 27 on 7-for-9 shooting (7-for-8 from distance) in his side’s 70-53 victory. Georgie is as smooth a guard as you’ll find in the league, and he can score in bunches.
Andre Fox and Jahaad Proctor, High Point: Both of these high-output guards struggled in the Panthers’ conference-opener at Winthrop, leading coach Scott Cherry to remark that they “can’t win like that” with those two and fellow guard Brandonn Kamga combining to go 15-for-40 from the floor. The trio went 19-for-37 in an 84-74 win over Asheville, and Proctor and Fox combined for 50 of the club’s 84 points. Both guys can do much more within that High Point offense, and are built for driving the lane and drawing fouls, or kicking back to the perimeter to find an open shooter after the defense gets flat and eventually collapses on the driver.
Last Week’s Results
Saturday, December 30
Asheville 85, Campbell 79
Winthrop 76, High Point 60
Gardner-Webb 58, Liberty 55
Radford 78, Presbyterian 62
Charleston Southern 84, Longwood 43
Tuesday, January 2
Liberty 70, Charleston Southern 53
Wednesday, January 3
Presbyterian 78, Longwood 65
High Point 84, Asheville 74
Radford 85, Winthrop 79
Gardner-Webb 82, Campbell 80 (OT)
This Week’s Games (all times Eastern and broadcasts on the Big South Network, unless otherwise indicated)
Saturday, January 6
Winthrop at Campbell, 2
Gardner-Webb at Longwood, 2
Presbyterian at Liberty, 4 (LFSN/ESPN3)
Asheville at Radford, 4
Charleston Southern at High Point, 7
Tuesday, January 9
High Point at Gardner-Webb, 7
Liberty at Winthrop, 7 (ESPN3)
Radford at Charleston Southern, 7
Longwood at Asheville, 7
Campbell at Presbyterian, 7
Friday, January 12
High Point at Campbell, 7
Longwood at Liberty, 7
Winthrop at Charleston Southern, 7
Radford at Gardner-Webb, 7
Asheville at Presbyterian, 7