On to day eight with the Big South. Good news: when you finish this one, you’ll have made it through 25% of all our previews. The season keeps creeping closer, and I can’t wait. Can Winthrop get its NCAA Tournament bid after not getting the chance to dance last season due to the pandemic. And how is the conference’s middle tier building up? Here’s my full breakdown:
- Winthrop – The Eagles are one of the teams that had officially punched their ticket to the Big Dance pre-pandemic and didn’t get the reward on Selection Sunday, but that gratification should only be delayed by a year. This team is by far the favorite to win this league once again. The size and length across the board makes this group a challenging matchup for most mid-majors, and that starts with 6-7 do-it-all point guard Chandler Vaudrin. Vaudrin makes this group go: he plays with great pace, can grab-and-go in transition, and picks his spots well. DJ Burns is also one of the league’s best players, a load to deal with in the paint who will impact the game more and more the longer he can stay on the floor. There’s also a ton of excitement about the addition of Adonis Arms, a D2 transfer from Northwest Nazarene who at 6-6 oozes versatility and scoring ability. Having so many multipositional athletes like Vaudrin, Arms, and Chase Claxton allows WU to get up and down the floor with the best in the country, while the presence of Burns as a bruiser in the post This offense should be a lot of fun, and the talent level here rivals Pat Kelsey’s best teams in Rock Hill. Watch out.
- UNC-Asheville – Asheville feels like the ‘best of the rest’ here, and Mike Morrell deserves credit for getting this program back on the right track after inheriting almost nothing and winning just 2 D1 games in year one. That number jumped to 13 in 2019-20, and should rise even more in 2020-21. Getting old as a group is the dream of so many mid-major coaches, and Morrell is lucky to be able to do just that with five returning double-figure scorers returning as juniors. The backcourt is dynamic: Morrell’s club plays fast with four guards on the floor, and the quartet of DeVon Baker, Lavar Batts, LJ Thorpe, and Taijon Jones is perhaps the league’s best backcourt. They also are well-equipped to push the ball – particularly Batts, who is relentless in attacking the rim and pushing in transition. But while the small lineup helps the Bulldogs win the turnover battle and get easy buckets on offense, the style has put a major strain on the defense. UNCA allowed opponents to make a ghastly 57% of their attempts from 2, partially because nominal center Coty Jude is more of a shooting 4-man and doesn’t provide much resistance down low. The small lineup also led to rebounding struggles: the Bulldogs lost the glass by an average of 6.7 boards per game, which is a tough way to win games. The answer to both those issues might be grad transfer big man Evan Clayborne (NC Central). Clayborne is a more traditional post player who finishes well around the rim but more importantly blocked more than two shots per 40 and is solid on the glass. If Clayborne can give the defense a lift, this is the league’s second-best team.
- Charleston Southern – Much like UNCA, Charleston Southern is a team built around its guards. Phlandrous Fleming is perhaps the conference’s best player, a do-it-all wing in the mold of former CSU star Christian Keeling who is capable of getting to the rack, distributing for others, and defending four positions. Fleming’s creation ability as a bigger guard meshes well with a pair of sharp-shooting undersized scorers in Deontaye Buskey and Travis Anderson to open up a lot of options for the offense. Barclay Radebaugh also brings in an impressive freshman class headlined by SG Ja’Quavian Florence, who had significant high-major interest throughout the recruiting process before winding up in Charleston. Florence profiles in the Fleming/Keeling mold and should make an immediate impact. Where Radebaugh’s club needs help is up front: a breakout year for Sadarius Bowser would be huge given how thin they are at that spot (though perhaps some smaller lineups with Ty Jones at the 5 are feasible).
- Gardner-Webb – It was an eventful year in Boiling Springs for Tim Kraft following the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament bid. An 0-5 start, a loss to hapless Kennesaw State, and a 1-3 start to Big South play were all bumps in the road, and off-court issues with Jose Perez that eventually led to the star wing transferring to Marquette. Then, after a strong finish got the Bulldogs to a .500 finish for the season, talented shooting guard Nate Johnson hit the grad transfer market and landed at Xavier. So can Kraft get things back on the right track this season? That starts with talented point guard Jaheam Cornwall, who really turned things on when Perez left the team in February. In the ten games without Perez, Cornwall averaged 16 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists per game while shooting 46% from 3. GWU went 7-3 in those games, easily the team’s best stretch of the season. Finding help around Cornwall is where things get interesting. I’m bullish on athletic frontcourt player Kareem Reid, a high-level rim protector whose offensive game remains raw but productive around the basket. Reid was formerly a highly-rated recruit, and his growth in year two should be a boon for Kraft’s club. JUCO guard Jacob Falko put up incredible numbers, albeit at a low level (Cecil College is NJCAA D2). With eight freshmen on the roster (4 of whom redshirted last season), bumps are inevitable. But if some younger players can step up, Cornwall and Reid can make what feels like a transition year a very competitive one.
- Radford – Already set to graduate four starters, Mike Jones was always going to have his work cut out for him. But Carlik Jones’ decision to grad transfer to Louisville (understandable, given he had little left to prove in the Big South) threw the roster further into flux. Jones was one of the best mid-major players in the country, an elite-level scorer and shooter who blossomed into an impressive floor general throughout his career. There’s no easy way to replace that type of player. Still, Jones is one of the league’s best coaches, and he brings in a strong group of newcomers to help keep the Highlanders competitive. I like JUCO import Dante Moses, who was recruited by Young for multiple years dating back to his high school days. He’ll step into a big scoring role right away. Charlotte transfer Dravon Mangum is also an exciting addition as a versatile frontcourt player in the mold of many former contributors Jones at RU. Freshman PG Xavier Lipscomb is also a name definitely worth watching: he had a strong list of mid-major suitors and built a reputation for stuffing the stat sheet during his high school career.
- USC Upstate – The slow build continues in Spartanburg, as Dave Dickerson slowly accumulates young talent to creep up the Big South hierarchy. A standout junior class remains the nucleus: Everette Hammond is on track to be one of the best players in the conference before the end of his career, while Bryson Malone and Nevin Zink continue to develop into starting-caliber pieces. Tommy Bruner provided a spark last season as a freshman, demonstrating real promise as a ballhandling guard unafraid to put up shots. The real wildcard is former top-50 recruit Khavon Moore, who has had brief stints at Texas Tech and Clemson. Moore has dealt with injuries and hasn’t been overly productive when on the floor, but presents nothing but upside at this level. If he puts it together, he’s the type of piece that could catapult a program like Upstate into a conference contender.
- Longwood – Griff Aldrich led the Lancers to their best conference finish in program history a season ago, going 9-9 in Big South play as he continue to try to build a program in Farmville. But the departure of three starters will make another jump challenging, at least this year. Shabooty Phillips and JaShaun Smith are both big losses, given they were the team’s two most reliable scoring options. And considering the offense was already one of the nation’s worst a season ago, replacing that duo will be difficult. The Lancers also lose a high-level defender in the frontcourt in Jordan Cintron, who transferred to Niagara. More efficient offense from Deshaun Wade and Christian Wilson seems critical: Juan Munoz is a steady floor general, but he needs help to keep this offense functioning. I’m very high on freshman guard Justin Hill, who was named first team all-Greater Houston during his senior year of high school after averaging 23 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals per game. Both his parents were D1 basketball players, and I expect Hill will have a great career for the Lancers. If Hill can provide a jolt, another .500 campaign in the conference seems possible.
- Campbell – Last year was the first time since starting this blog that I didn’t spend far too much time tracking the Camels – the graduation of Chris Clemons left them less of a must-watch. Still, Kevin McGeehan did a nice job resetting the roster to keep things competitive, and brings back a veteran team with some upward potential in the conference. Cedric Henderson stepped in immediately as the go-to guy and did so well: he picked his spots, scored extremely efficiently, and served as a reliable option for a team that needed one. The rest of the roster was slightly less reliable: Young players cycled in and out of the rotation as McGeehan tried to find out exactly what he had, and even an older guy like Ja’Cor Nelson who was expected to shine was VERY inconsistent. I’m buying stock in sophomore Joshua Lusane, a very versatile forward who earned big minutes down the stretch and was fairly productive in those opportunities. But more consistent performers need to pop up before I buy into this club as a top-half team.
- High Point – So far, the Tubby Smith at High Point experiment is looking less like the “proud alum brings a program to the top” story and more like the “Al Skinner randomly takes Kennesaw State and has absolutely no success” story, but it’s early yet! Regardless, year two for Tubby was an ugly one, marked by 300+ rankings on offense and defense in KenPom. 23 losses were the most in any season of Smith’s illustrious career. Turning things around will have to start with a pair of talented sophomores in John-Michael Wright and Eric Coleman. Wright and Coleman were thrown into the fire a season ago and are better for it now, with Wright in particular looking like a future all-league guy. D2 grad transfer Lydell Elmore should help solidify the frontcourt: Elmore is athletic and capable of facing up, which could make him one of the better under-the-radar pickups in the conference this spring. But for the most part, Smith seems committed to building it with freshmen: we’ll see if a 5-man incoming group can spark things. Otherwise, it might be another rough year.
- Hampton – Despite ranking over 300th in KenPom, HU was just one half away from the NCAA Tournament in 2020, upsetting Radford and leading Winthrop at halftime of the Big South Championship Game before fading down the stretch. Buck Joyner’s group was always dangerous thanks to the presence of two superstars in Jermaine Marrow and Ben Stanley, who combined to average 46.8 points per game last season. As far as I can tell, they were the only duo to each average 22 points per game in a season since at least 1992. Now, both are gone, with Marrow having graduated and Stanley transferring to Xavier. That certainly presents an uphill battle for Joyner and company. It seems likely that Davion Warren will be asked to carry the load: Warren was a reliable third option a season ago, a slashing wing capable of hitting a catch-and-shoot jumper. Former Providence big man Dajour Dickens would be a nice buy-low option, but his status seems in flux given he’s not currently listed on the Hampton roster. Joyner is a good coach who consistently keeps this program competitive, but losing Stanley (especially so late in the transfer cycle) is very tough to come back from.
- Presbyterian – Quinton Farrell has seen the roster turn over rapidly from the Dustin Kerns era at Presbyterian, and the departure of Cory Hightower for Western Carolina is a major loss that solidifies this season as a rebuilding one. I like what Farrell did on the transfer market this spring, adding Brandon Younger (Charlotte), Trevon Reddish (College of Charleston), and Winston Hill (D2 Francis Marion). All three would need waivers to play right away, but Younger and Reddish theoretically have good cases. If that duo is eligible, there’s some potential here. If not, things could get rough quick.
All-Conference First Team:
- Devon Baker (UNC Asheville)
- Jaheam Cornwall (Gardner-Webb)
- Phlandrous Fleming (Charleston Southern)
- Cedric Henderson (Campbell)
- DJ Burns (Winthrop)
Player of the Year: Devon Baker (UNC-Asheville) – Baker personifies what Mike Morrell is trying to build at UNCA – he’s a tough, physical guard who scores at three levels and is a menace on the defensive end. Moving off the ball last season proved beneficial for his efficiency, allowing him to focus on scoring and taking better shots. He’s a major reason the Bulldogs have a good a chance as anyone to knock off Winthrop at the top of the conference.
Breakout Player: Chase Claxton (Winthrop) – Claxton shot a bonkers 77% from the field last season, serving as an excellent rim presence and lob threat during his freshman campaign. He’s a high-level athlete capable of defending multiple positions, and his length fits in perfectly with the rest of this Winthrop roster.
Newcomer of the Year: Khavon Moore (USC Upstate) – A wild card choice here given uncertainty about whether he’ll be eligible this season, Moore is worthy of the choice should he be able to play. Even with his disappointing start to his college career, a guy like Moore simply isn’t found at this level. He’s capable of playing multiple positions, handling the ball, and hitting perimeter jump shots. This could go down as one of the steals of the offseason. If he’s not eligible, my choice would be Winthrop’s Adonis Arms, who gives this Winthrop team a different look thanks to his ability to score the ball in bunches on the wing.