By Kevin Sweeney
The Big South gave us one of the best moments of conference tournament week, a buzzer-beater from freshman Carlik Jones in a jam-packed house to send Radford to their first NCAA Tournament since 2009.
Much has changed in the conference, with 2 additions and 1 subtraction in the realignment game giving the league a new look. Hampton and USC Upstate come over from the MEAC and A-Sun, respectively, while Liberty departs for the A-Sun as they wait for a permanent FBS home for their football program. The other big news came when High Point hired former national coach of the year Tubby Smith, an alum, as their new coach. Thanks to those moves, the Big South will be packed with storylines to watch throughout the season, and I can’t wait to see what transpires.
The Highlanders took major strides from a mediocre 2016-17 campaign into a conference title in 2017-18 thanks to a much-improved defense and the presence of Carlik Jones. Radford played great defense and controlled the glass, then relied on Jones and Ed Polite to make enough big shots to win. That was a winning formula, and something that should be able to be replicated this season. Polite returns for his senior season as one of the conference’s best, a versatile combo forward with big-time athleticism and the ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor. He’ll pair in the frontcourt with Kansas State grad transfer Mawdo Sallah, a good rebounder and solid rim protector who should provide the perfect final piece to the puzzle for the Highlanders to repeat as conference champs.
After Radford, there are a lot of teams with solid but flawed rosters in the middle of the pack. I’ll take Winthrop as the “best of the rest”, thanks in no small part to having the conference’s best coach in Pat Kelsey. Kelsey loses mid-major unicorn Xavier Cooks, a point forward who could do a little bit of everything on the floor, but brings back a solid returning core that features talented forward Josh Ferguson and guards Bjorn Broman & Adam Pickett. Ferguson has star potential, a strong rebounder and post scorer who has begun to stretch his range out to the perimeter. Someone will have to step up to create offense for others in the absence of Cooks, but I’ll bet on a Kelsey-coached team to find a way.
Hampton brings back a lot of talent from that won 18 games last season. The step up in competition from the MEAC to the Big South is significant, but the Pirates have a high-powered offense that features guards that could play at any level. Headlining that backcourt is Jermaine Marrow, a junior who has already recorded well over 1,000 career points. Marrow needs to continue to improve his efficiency, but took steps forward in 2017-18 after being woefully poor from the field in 2016-17 and should be able to continue to make strides this season. He’ll be paired with another talented scorer in Kalin Fisher, a duo that should be tough to stop in the Big South.
The Camels have improved each of the past 2 seasons thanks to the unbelievable play of Chris Clemons. Do they have one more step forward in them? That will likely depend on a 5-man incoming group of freshmen and JUCO players and their ability to compliment Clemons. Kevin McGeehan seems to have emphasized landing versatile wing players that can play multiple positions, with the headliners a 3-star wing in Isaac Chatman whose recruitment cooled after early offers and interest from high-majors and a top-100 JUCO prospect in guard Trey Spencer. Losing efficient second scorer Marcus Burk is without a doubt a blow, but this roster has a ton of raw talent. If they can put it all together, they might have the best chance at pushing Radford for the top spot.
#5. High Point– DARK HORSE
It’s Tubby time at HPU, with Scott Cherry replaced with a legendary head coach entering the twilight of his career. I’m generally skeptical of coaches taking “retirement” jobs at mid-major programs, but this case feels different. Smith wants to go out on his own terms after not getting a fair shake at Memphis, and has a chance to bring his alma mater to their first-ever NCAA Tournament. He inherits a strong stable of guards from Cherry, including an all-conference talent in Jahaad Proctor. Tubby’s teams have always won more on coaching and development over recruiting prowess, and that M.O. should play well at the mid-major level.
A pair of double-digit scorers return for Tim Craft’s bunch in David Efianayi and DJ Laster, but losing point guard Liam O’Reilly from a team that already lost the turnover battle last season hurts. However, GWU has a solid replacement in tow in Jaheam Cornwall, who posted strong numbers in a 6th man role playing either guard spot last season. This feels like another .500 club, one or two pieces from getting over the hump in the Big South.
#7. Charleston Southern
Barclay Radebaugh has his star in wing scorer Christian Keeling. As Keeling enters his junior year, Radebaugh has 2 years to surround his star with as much talent as possible. As of now, the roster is very young, with 10 freshmen and sophomores filling out the roster next to Keeling, Travis McConico and JUCO transfer Nate Louis. 2nd-year jumps from Ty Jones, Deontaye Buskey, and Jamaal David seem necessary for the Buccaneers to climb the standings.
It’s weird putting this UNCA program so low, given how consistent the program has been in recent years under Nick McDevitt. But McDevitt departed his alma mater for Middle Tennessee State this offseason, leaving the program in flux. The team’s top 7 scorers from last season all departed, including early exits by MaCio Teague and Jonathan Baehre to high-major programs. New head man Mike Morrell comes in from Texas as a bright young name in the business, and he did as good a job as he could have landing some freshman talent late in the game. However, this team is going to be extremely young and should take some lumps this season.
Given what he inherited, going 11-21 in his first year was a big success for Dustin Kerns. He’ll get back 3 double-figure scorers in year 2 as he looks to continue to build some momentum at one of the nation’s toughest jobs. Chief atop the list of priorities for this season should be becoming more efficient offensively– the Blue Hose shot just 40% as a team in Big South play last season. If they can improve there, they can continue to take steps forward in the conference.
The Lancers went with an outside-the-box head coaching hire in Griff Aldrich, an assistant at UMBC who made the jump into college coaching fairly recently after being a successful lawyer and businessman. Aldrich gets the luxury of having talented guard Isaiah Walton during his first season in Farmville, but the roster around him lacks talent. I’ll be watching closely to see what Aldrich can do with this program, but this won’t be a quick fix.
The final year in the A-Sun was an absolute disaster for USC Upstate, going 7-25 with just 3 D1 wins all season. As a result, the program parted ways with head coach Kyle Perry after just one season in a very unconventional move and hired former Tulane head coach Dave Dickerson to run the program. He inherits a pair of talented scorers in Deion Holmes and Malik Moore, but will have to find a way to improve a defense that conceded a whopping 89.6 points per game in conference play last season.
All-Conference First Team:
- Chris Clemons– Campbell (24.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.1 apg, .452/.371/.861)
- David Efianayi– Gardner-Webb (17.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.5 apg, .437/.362/.807)
- Christian Keeling– Charleston Southern (17.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.0 apg, .426/.315/.793)
- Ed Polite– Radford (13.3 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 1.5 apg, .474/.275/.727)
- Josh Ferguson– Winthrop (10.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 0.9 apg, .609/.222/.756)
Player of the Year: Chris Clemons (Campbell)
No debate here: Clemons is the Big South’s best. The 5-9 dynamo is one of college basketball’s gems, an elite athlete who dunks with frequency and scores at all 3 levels. He has already racked up 2,232 career points, and simply replicating his last 2 seasons would be enough for Clemons to join the exclusive 3,000-point club in college basketball, becoming the first (or second, depending on how fast Mike Daum gets to the figure) since to achieve the honor since Doug McDermott.
Breakout Player: Jaheam Cornwall (Gardner-Webb)
Cornwall will get the keys to the point guard spot at GWU this season, and seems poised to thrive in the role. Cornwall was excellent as a freshman, providing some scoring punch, taking care of the ball, and draining a blistering 44% of his shots from downtown. I’m excited to see his development into one of the Big South’s best floor generals as his career progresses.
Newcomer of the Year: DeVon Baker (UNC-Asheville)
2 years ago when writing my Big South preview, I highlighted an incoming UNC-Asheville point guard from a top prep program as the league’s best newcomer. His name: MaCio Teague.
2 years later, another incoming Bulldogs point guard has caught my eye: DeVon Baker. Coming from SPIRE Academy in Ohio, Baker posted outstanding numbers for the prep powerhouse, averaging 17 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals while shooting 49% from the field and 40% from 3. The former Siena commit has good size for the position and a game-ready body, and should impact Mike Morrell’s club right away given the massive hole they have to fill at the point guard spot.