By Kevin Sweeney
Chris Clemons is gone. I am sad. That’s all. Let’s do some rankings:
#1. Winthrop– The Eagles spent the early part of the offseason in a state of flux, with Pat Kelsey sniffing around the Northern Kentucky job and the roster in need of a jolt with the graduation of its top two scorers from 2018-19. Well, Kelsey is back, and with him comes an excellent incoming class that should move the needle right away in the Big South. Tennessee transfer and local Rock Hill product DJ Burns is the headliner, a bruising force down low who should be a nightmare for Big South teams to defend. However, I’m equally excited about a pair of D2 transfers– triple-double machine Chandler Vaudrin (15.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.5 assists per game at Walsh) and dynamic scoring guard Hunter Hale (17.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists per game at Grand Valley State)– both of whom should be impact players. Add in returning frontcourt piece Josh Ferguson, and Kelsey could have the Eagles back dancing.
#2. Gardner-Webb– Tim Kraft finally got over the hump and brought the Runnin’ Bulldogs to their first-ever NCAA Tournament, and the piece that pushed GWU over the top was Jose Perez, the do-it-all wing who was immediately one of the league’s best as a freshman. With the graduations of DJ Laster and David Efianayi, there’s no question that Perez will be the number one option. The question surrounds who will step up around him– junior guard Nate Johnson seems like a good bet to be the second option. An x-factor: Kareem Reid, who attended the same prep school as Perez and fellow Runnin’ Bulldog Jaheam Cornwall and should add significant athleticism along the front line from day one.
#3. Radford– Losing Swiss Army knife Ed Polite is a blow for Mike Jones’ Highlander team, but Jones has been savvy on the transfer market and still has perhaps the league’s best player in Carlik Jones. A reloaded frontcourt with a trio of transfers in defensive extraordinaire Devine Eke (Rider), rangy center Lewis Djonkam (VCU), and versatile combo forward Chyree Walker (Delaware– December eligible) should help ease the blow of losing Polite. Under Mike Jones, Radford has kept turnovers down and shot the ball efficiently. That’s a pretty good recipe for success.
#4. Charleston Southern– With the conference as a whole looking down, Barclay Radebaugh had to feel like he had as good a chance as any to win the Big South in 2019-20 when the offseason began. Unfortunately, the loss of 3-year star Christian Keeling as a grad transfer to UNC took most of the wind out of CSU’s sails, but enough talent remains to keep the Bucs interesting. Dontrell Shuler was impressive as a freshman, and could step into a leading role in the backcourt next to Phlandrous Fleming.
#5. Hampton– One late-August tweet sent shockwaves not just through the Hampton program, but through the entire college basketball world:
Jermaine Marrow, fresh off averaging close to 25 points and 5 assists per game, decided against a late transfer and is back with Buck Joyner’s club for one more season, with a chance to etch his name into the Hampton record books in the process. Joyner needs someone to step up and fill the void left by Kalin Fisher as a release valve for Marrow, perhaps late-signing freshman Russell “Deuce” Dean could be the answer.
#6. Longwood– Early returns on the Griff Aldrich hire were strong, with a year one that featured the program’s first-ever postseason berth and some nice wins on the recruiting trail. Bringing back a trio of dynamic guards in Shabooty Phillips, JaShaun Smith, and Jaylon Wilson should help, and a waiver for ECU transfer DeShaun Wade adds one more option on the wing. The Lancers still lack size and are heavily reliant on the outside shot, but Aldrich’s bunch should be pesky once again.
#7. UNC-Asheville– To call year one of the Mike Morrell era in Asheville a trying one would be an understatement. The Bulldogs were legitimately dreadful at a program that has gotten used to winning over the past several years, with several freshmen thrown into the fire just to fill minutes. Hopefully, those trials by fire will lead to more wins in year two– Devon Baker, Tajion Jones, and Coty Jude look like building blocks, and a pair of transfers in Lavar Batts (NC State) and Jax Levitch (Fort Wayne) should help. I’ve heard good things in particular about Levitch– a wing with good size who can really space the floor.
#8. Campbell– It’s an absolute shame we don’t get to watch Chris Clemons ball out every night this season, as the diminutive dynamo has moved on to the pro ranks after an illustrious career in a Camel uniform. Kevin McGeehan brings in a new tiny PG who could make an early impact in Messiah Thompson, a better passer than Clemons with great feel for the game. Still, significant growth is needed from young guard Ja’cor Nelson, and JUCO product Austin McCullough looks primed for a big role right away.
#9. High Point– Early departures by Jahaad Proctor (Purdue) and Brandon Kamga (Cal State Fullerton) takes most of the wind out of Tubby Smith’s squad’s sails, losing what would have been one of the conference’s best backcourts and leaving the Panthers with just three upperclassmen. Freshman Eric Coleman looks like the best of the bunch– the versatile forward was one of the best players in the state of Georgia and had a strong list of mid-major suitors.
#10. Presbyterian– Sometimes college basketball is unfair. It was certainly unfair for the Presbyterian program to lose Dustin Kerns and Adam Flagler just as the program was gaining momentum with the best season in program history. Presbyterian is one of the toughest jobs in college basketball, and alum of the program Quinton Ferrell now gets his crack to help continue to slow climb for PC. His biggest win: holding onto Cory Hightower, an athletic combo forward on a star trajectory.
#11. USC-Upstate– Dave Dickerson’s team has just one upperclassman and no seniors on the roster as he looks to begin the turnaround at USC-Upstate. Graduating Malik Moore and Deion Holmes certainly doesn’t help. It could be a very rough year, given Moore and Holmes were clearly the two best players on a team that won three D1 games last season.
All-Conference First Team:
- Jermaine Marrow (Hampton)
- Carlik Jones (Radford)
- Shabooty Phillips (Longwood)
- Jose Perez (Gardner-Webb)
- DJ Burns (Winthrop)
Player of the Year: Jermaine Marrow (Hampton)
Marrow should top 2,000 career points in his first game of the 2019-20 season and has a legitimate chance to lead the nation in scoring as a senior. Without a clear second scorer given the loss of Kalin Fisher, Marrow’s usage could rise even more. His return to Hampton gives the Pirates a puncher’s chance at a title run in a wide-open Big South.
Breakout Player: Corey Hightower (Presbyterian)
Hightower pondered a transfer after Dustin Kerns left for Appalachian State, but his return gives Quinton Ferrell a piece to build around. Hightower is athletic, can hit outside shots, and scored efficiently as a freshmen. It wouldn’t surprise me if we talk about Hightower among the league’s best by the end of the season.
Newcomer of the Year: DJ Burns (Winthrop)
Any of the three transfers for Winthrop have a shot at this one, but Burns has to stand out. A former top-100 recruit, Burns had plenty of options out of high school, but now gets a chance to return home and star in front of the home fans. He should control the paint on both ends, and is a big reason I’ve tabbed the Eagles as my favorite in the Big South.