32 Conferences, 32 Days: Big South

By Kevin Sweeney

The biggest offseason news in the Big South was the departure and subsequent return of Pat Kelsey at Winthrop. The 42-year-old former Xavier and Wake Forest assistant initially accepted the UMass head job this offseason and was seemingly minutes before being officially introduced at UMass before electing to return to Winthrop. The return of Kelsey, the best coach in the conference, was certainly huge for Winthrop. While the rest of the Big South didn’t have as a crazy an offseason as Kelsey, it looks to be a very interesting league to follow this year, especially at the top of the conference.

Standings Projection:

  1. UNC-Asheville: The star pairing of sophomore MaCio Teague and senior Ahmad Thomas should carry the Bulldogs to a Big South title. Frontcourt play is a bit of a concern though, with the team’s top 2 bigs from a season ago graduating.
  2. Liberty: The Flames return all but one key contributor from a 21-win team a season ago and bring in a solid recruiting class as well. A pair of sophomores in PG Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz and F Myo Baxter-Bell look like stars in the making.
  3. Winthrop: Kelsey returns, but WU still does lose their superstar PG Keon Johnson, who scored over 2,000 points in his illustrious career. Still, versatile forward Xavier Cooks will be one of the best players in the conference, and I don’t expect too much of a fall for the Eagles.
  4. Campbell: Things started to come together for the Camels late in the year a season ago, making a run to the conference title game behind Chris Clemons’ heroics before making it to the semifinals of the CIT. A potentially dangerous club this season.
  5. Radford: Nearly everyone returns for the Highlanders, including a double-double machine in undersized forward Ed Polite Jr. After a season in which the Highlanders lost 5 Big South games by 7 points or less, it wouldn’t take much for this team to make a big jump in the standings.
  6. Gardner-Webb: Losing starting point guard LaQuincy Rideau (transferred to USF) definitely hurts, but there are still some intriguing pieces there at Tim Craft’s disposal. Look for a potential breakout year from DJ Laster.
  7. High Point: A trio of double-figure scorers graduate for Scott Cherry’s club, but the Panthers could have one of the league’s best backcourts featuring sophomore Jamaal Wright, junior Andre Fox, and talented former Iona guard Jahaad Proctor.
  8. Charleston Southern: Wing Christian Keeling had one of the better freshman seasons in the country last year, averaging over 17 points and 7 rebounds per game in his first season. If he gets more help around him, this team could rise up the Big South standings.
  9. Presbyterian: The bad news is that Presbyterian was one of the worst teams in Division 1 a season ago. The good news is that a lot of pieces return from that club. If new head coach and former Wofford associate head coach Dustin Kerns can bring some energy to that program, things could begin trending up.
  10. Longwood: Losing your 2 best players after a 6-win season is not a recipe for success at any level of basketball. It could be a very rough year in Farmville.

Champions: UNC-Asheville

The Bulldogs thrive on ball control offensively and wreaking havoc on the defensive end. That’s exactly what they did a season ago (58th-fewest turnovers in the country while forcing the 11th-most in the nation). The anchor of that defense is senior Ahmad Thomas, a versatile wing who averaged over 3 steals per game a season ago. However, unlike many defensive specialists, Thomas is an elite offensive option, forming an incredibly high-powered duo with sophomore MaCio Teague. Frontcourt play is a concern with Giacomo Zilli and Will Weeks graduating, but look for College of Charleston transfer Donovan Gilmore to play a big role up front for the Bulldogs.

Dark Horse: Campbell

Chris Clemons. Enough said.

Simply put, the Camels have the best player in the conference and one of the best in the entire country in Clemons, a dynamic playmaker despite his generously-listed 5-9 frame. That in of itself will keep Campbell in a lot of games this season. Combine that with a lot of production returning for the Camels from a season ago, and you get a very intriguing team for the 2017-18 season. The team’s miracle run to the Big South title game followed by a pair of CIT wins certainly showed what they are capable of if they can pull all of that together for an entire season.

All-Conference First Team:

  • G: Chris Clemons (Campbell)
  • G: MaCio Teague (UNC-Asheville)
  • G: Ahmad Thomas (UNC-Asheville)
  • F: Ed Polite (Radford)
  • F: Xavier Cooks (Winthrop)

Player of the Year: Chris Clemons- As I touched on earlier, Clemons is just flat-out special. Coming off a sophomore campaign in which he averaged 25.1 points per game (good for 2nd nationally), Clemons will likely post even gaudier numbers this season. He’s lightning quick, a great shooter, and very bouncy, a combination that makes him easily one of the funnest players to watch in college basketball. Games like this gem below (courtesy of Campbell Athletics/YouTube) are what make him so special.

Breakout Player of the Year: Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz (Liberty)- After an excellent freshman season, Pacheco-Ortiz seems primed for a breakout sophomore campaign. The Puerto Rico native who represented his country at the FIBA U19 World Cup this summer concluded his freshman campaign with an 11 game stretch in which he averaged over 12 points, 4 boards, and 3 assists while shooting over 45% from 3. He’s certainly capable of posting those kinds of numbers this season, and is certainly on track to be a great player for a long time in the Big South.

Newcomer of the Year: Jahaad Proctor (High Point)- A slashing shooting guard who began his career at Iona, Proctor definitely showed promise in his freshman season in New Rochelle, posting 7 games with double-figure scoring including a 20-point outburst vs Fairfield. The big weakness in his game was 3-point shooting (29%), but if he made strides in that regard during his redshirt year, he could be a very nice player for Scott Cherry’s High Point club.

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