Top Big South storylines to watch in 2017-18:
1. Winthrop finally broke their string of Big South tournament title game losses, but now have to replace their all-time leading scorer, Keon Johnson. The good news is that head coach Pat Kelsey had a last-second change of heart, and returned to Rock Hill after accepting the UMass job.
2. UNC Asheville looks poised to return to the Big South’s top spot after a surprising loss to Campbell in the Big South Tournament. Nick McDevitt’s team is routinely raided by high-major coaches, but he responds by reloading, not rebuilding.
3. Chris Clemons returned to Campbell after testing the NBA waters. Clemons is among the most electric scorers in the entire country (and the leading returning scorer in D1), and the rest of the college basketball world took notice when he dropped 51 on UNCA in the Big South Tournament, leading the Camels all the way to the title game and a subsequent CIT run.
4. With the exception of Johnson, Longwood’s Khris Lane, Gardner Webb’s Laquincy Rideau and Tyrell Nelson and Charleston Southern’s Armel Potter, the Big South returns everyone of consequence (including four of the five first-team all-conference selections), making for what should be a very competitive season top to bottom.
5. The only coaching change in the league is a big one, as Gregg Nibert resigned at Presbyterian. Nibert had coached the Blue Hose for 28 seasons, from the age of 32 when he took the job to 60 when he called it quits. Nibert guided PC into D1 basketball and was one of the most genuinely nice coaches in the sport. Wofford assistant Dustin Kerns takes over on the sideline for the Blue Hose this year.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1. UNC Asheville– Nick McDevitt surprisingly didn’t have Ahmad Thomas or MaCio Teague poached from his squad (an all too familiar offseason scenario for him), which means the Bulldogs should be the team to beat in the Big South this year. Led by Thomas and Teague, McDevitt has the long, rangy athletes that he utilizes to continually harass opposing offenses into turnovers with intense ball pressure and a constantly switching ball screen defense. UNCA has led the Big South in defensive turnover rate two years running, which was good for 12th nationally both years. The backcourt is the heart and soul of UNCA, led by Thomas, Teague and senior point guard Kevin Vannatta. Thomas is the epitome of what McDevitt preaches on both ends of the floor. Thomas was eighth nationally in steal rate, hit 46 percent of his 3-pointers and posted a 109 ORtg. He’s the total package, and his versatility on the defensive end allows him to legitimately guard 1-4. Running next to him is the 6-foot-3 Teague, whose length makes him play more like a 6-foot-7 wing. Teague was the Big South’s Freshman of the Year and posted a 127 ORtg in conference play, a truly absurd number for a shooting guard. Teague rarely turned the ball over and hit 49 percent of his 3-pointers in Big South games. It’s frightening to think of what he might do in his sophomore year. Vannatta sets the offense for McDevitt, and is also arguably his most sound defender. In a parallel universe, it’s highly unlikely that Clemons goes off for 51 in the BST if Vannatta didn’t miss the game with the flu. Raekwon Miller is often lost in the shuffle in UNCA’s deep and talented backcourt, but he’s a perfect McDevitt player. The frontcourt is led by Alec Wnuk, who is sort of a poor man’s Xavier Cooks. He’s a plus passer and can play the same hybrid big role. College of Charleston transfer Donovan Gilmore is a big addition for McDevitt, as he’s an athletic presence on the frontline that UNCA has been missing. Few mid-major coaches recruit to their system as well as McDevitt has proven in just a short amount of time, and this year’s class is no exception. IJ Thorpe, Jalen Seegars and Taijon Jones are all prototypical McDevitt 2/3/4 hybrids. Last year’s early bow out in the Big South Tournament should have this team more than motivated, and that’s a terrifying notion considering the talent and depth McDevitt has at his disposal.
2. Liberty– With Ritchie McKay’s pack line defense presumably in full harmony in his third season since returning to Liberty for a second stint as head coach, the Flames are going to be an incredibly dangerous Big South team. Add in the fact that McKay actually has a stable of post players for the first time in his second tenure, a solid freshmen class and a roster that returns nearly everyone, and you can make a case that Liberty is the team to beat. The most important development for McKay is the bulking up of the frontcourt, where not even the pack line could mask some deficiencies in rim protection. Myo Baxter-Bell was underrated as a vastly undersized center often surrounded by four guards last year, but he’ll be buoyed by Akron transfer Isaiah Williams and Bradley transfer Scottie James, both of whom figure to play heavy minutes immediately; James and Williams have bodies and skill sets more similar to a guys like Xavier Cooks of Winthrop and Ed Polite of Radford. The unexpected transfer of Brock Gardner hurt, but with the addition of the two transfers, McKay finally has some frontcourt depth with which to work. The backcourt is led by point guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz. His game may not jump off the stream when you watch him play, but he’s essential to McKay’s methodical, ball control offense. He doesn’t turn the ball over, and he can knock down jump shots when teams sag to limit his penetration. Ortiz struggled a bit defensively at times, but that’s to be expected as a freshman point guard in McKay’s pack line scheme. He should be much improved this year. Speaking of defense, Lovell Cabbil returns as the best perimeter defender for the Flames, a textbook penetration denier in the pack line. He can also knock down shots on the other end. McKay has a talented wing corps, especially if Caleb Homesley can return to 100 percent this year after a brutal knee injury that tore his ACL and MCL. Homesley was playing as well as anyone on the Flames when he went down eight games into the season. Even if Homesley’s recovery lasts into the season, Ryan Kemrite should keep the offense afloat. Kemrite led the Big South in both eFG and true shooting percentage last year and proved to be a potent dribble penetrator as well. He’ll be joined by a talented freshmen class on the wing, most notably 6-foot-6 Keegan McDowell. McDowell gives McKay the wing athleticism to match up with players like Thomas and Teague at UNCA. 6-foot-4 Elijah Cuffee should also be a factor on the wing as a freshman, but minutes for the newcomers are likely contingent on how quickly they pick up the pack line. With a solid frontcourt available for McKay to pair with a burgeoning backcourt and wing corps, the ceiling is high for the Flames this year.
3. Winthrop– The bad news for the Eagles: no Keon Johnson this year. The good news: Xavier Cooks returns, and Pat Kelsey pulled a Gregg Marshall reprise and decided to stay in Rock Hill. With Cooks, the Eagles are blessed with by far the most versatile big man in the league. Look at this conference numbers for Cooks: 114 ORtg despite the third-highest usage rate, third-highest assist rate, highest defensive rebounding rate, highest block rate and the seventh-highest free throw rate. Cooks is a truly unique talent, and he’s almost unguardable in a league like the Big South. Defensively, Cooks’ versatility is essential to Kelsey’s pack line principled scheme that extends past the perimeter more than most traditional pack lines. Cooks can switch out on guards without getting beat off the dribble. Besides Cooks, where do Johnson’s shots go? The Broman brothers return, with Bjorn in his veteran "glue guy" role and Anders likely to join the starting lineup as the resident sharp shooter (46 percent from 3-point range in league play). Rising sophomore big Josh Ferguson should probably see a major increase in minutes and likely slots into Duby Okeke’s role at the 5 next to Cooks. The biggest concern is who Kelsey uses as the primary ball handling guard. He has two fairly solid options, however, in Fordham transfer Nych Smith, who has the speed of Johnson, or Australian combo guard Kyle Zunic, who hails from Cooks’ hometown. Zunic reportedly has impressed Kelsey with his maturity, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him start from day one. Veteran guard Adam Pickett returns as Kelsey’s best on ball defender and instant energy off the bench. While the loss of Johnson is undoubtedly big, the return of Cooks and Kelsey should keep Winthrop in a three-team race in the Big South.
4. Radford– Thanks to an injury to Devin Cooper and an NCAA eligibility issue with star recruit Carlick Jones, Radford’s season was essentially derailed before it could begin. Mike Jones’ best teams feature a stable of interchangeable guards and multiple ball handlers. The loss of Cooper and Jones threw him for a loop, but this year the Highlanders should be able to play the style he prefers (i.e. pressure heavy and four guards) with those two back and several other backcourt options. Jones, Cooper and incumbent point guard Christian Bradford can all handle point guard duties, but Bradford is the weakest shooter of the three, so I imagine he’ll play on the ball most frequently. They’ll be surrounded by three shooters in Justin Cousin, Caleb Tanner and Donald Hicks. While Tanner is an excellent spot shooter, he’s most likely to see a minutes reduction in the league’s deepest backcourt due to his defense. Ed Polite headlines the frontcourt as one of the most versatile players in the league. Polite is Jones’ best overall defender, best rebounder, best interior scorer and is an adept passer off the block. Think of him in the Javonte Green role surrounded by four guards, like Jones’ 2014-15 team. Randy Phillips will man the 5 when Jones needs to go to a bigger lineup. Sophomore Devonnte Holland showed flashes last year, particularly as a glass eater, while Darius Bolstad proved to be an efficiency monster with his back to the basket, albeit in limited minutes. Radford was the youngest team in the league last year and never recovered from two key backcourt losses early in the year. With Polite surrounded by a full cadre of backcourt options, the Highlanders are the biggest unknown in the league – and they could be the Big South’s biggest sleeper.
5. Gardner Webb– If Laquincy Rideau hadn’t transferred out, Tim Craft’s team would almost certainly be in the same tier as UNCA/Liberty/Winthrop this season. As it is, the Runnin’ Bulldogs are likely just a notch below, as Craft also has to replace the production of one of the best bigs in the league, Tyrell Nelson. That said, Craft has the pieces in place to pull it off. Replacing Rideau at the point will be sophomore Christian Turner. Turner won’t replicate Rideau’s flashiness and league leading assist rate (or the third-highest steal rate in the country), but he should be reliable running the offense. He’ll be joined by breakout candidate David Efianayi off the ball. Efianayi proved to be as potent a rim attacker as Rideau as a freshman, and he showed a plus jump shot as well. He’s due for a massive sophomore year as the focal point of Craft’s offense. Liam O’Reilly returns to the backcourt as a spot shooter, while 6-foot-5 Jamaal Robateau is one of the best "3 and D" wings in the league. Replacing Nelson’s offensive production in the frontcourt will be a challenge. DJ Laster is clearly the most likely candidate, as he can be utilized in pick and pop situations like Nelson. L’Hassane Niangane is probably the best rim protector in the league, but his offense has failed to develop and his foul rate remains way too high. It will be interesting to see how Craft plays offensively this year. With the ultra aggressive Rideau, GWU went from two straight years of chucking the 3 at a high rate to having the sixth-highest free throw rate in the country last season coupled with the 323rd-lowest 3-point attempt rate. Efianayi is a definite slasher, and with his likely ascension into Rideau’s offensive output, I would expect Craft to maintain the penetration-heavy attack, even if the frontcourt production is likely down.
6. High Point– Typically the word "transfer" has a major negative connotation in Big South circles, but for High Point it’s the key reason for optimism this season. Scott Cherry’s team struggled offensively for large stretches in their first post-John Brown season, but the additions of Jahaad Proctor from Iona to the backcourt and Brandonn Kamga from Northeastern on the wing should provide a major boost. Proctor can pair with incumbent point guard Jamal Wright to form a potent dual point guard attack, and Kamga’s strength at 6-foot-5 can allow him to play the 4 and create mismatches against slower, bigger forwards while still being able to bang with them on the other end. Proctor and Kamga should make life easier on Andre Fox, as the 6-foot-4 wing and HPU leading returning scorer will no longer have to catch the brunt of opposing defenses without repercussion. Austin White returns with Wright in the backcourt as well, and those two combine to form one of the best on ball defending duos in the league. With the additions of Kamga, Proctor and freshman Denny Slay to Wright and White, Cherry has the league’s best defensive backcourt outside of UNCA, so it will be interesting to see if he cranks up the pressure and utilizes his base zone defense a lot less. Cherry’s frontcourt is solid if unspectacular. Ricky Madison is a veteran who has shown flashes offensively but is most valuable on the glass, while Luke Vargo could develop into something of a floor stretcher. We know Cherry can coach, and he’ll quickly integrate the key additions into a cohesive unit, making HPU a fairly solid sleeper pick in the Big South.
7. Campbell– With the nation’s leading returning scorer in Chris Clemons, Kevin McGeehan has wisely loosened the reigns on his modified Princeton offense, allowing for more creativity from the electric scorer. There’s no doubt Clemons can carry the Camels (as evidenced by his incredible run in the Big South Tournament), but he has three other returning starters around him and nine members of last year’s rotation in total. Clemons has to rely on his supporting cast, as every single defense will be geared to stop him. (Clemons was fourth nationally in usage and first in shot percentage, so he’ll get his regardless.) That cast should be very good at shooting the basketball from deep, particularly the sophomore class of Cory Gensler and Marcus Burk. The frontcourt is led by veterans Andrew Eudy and Shane Whitfield. Eudy doesn’t physically look like a guy who had the second-highest block rate in the league, but he’s a blue collar type of player. Whitfield does it all for McGeehan. He’s the quintessential "point forward" when Campbell wants to run its Princeton sets, and he draws a ton of contact in the paint. Mogga Lado and Damontez Oliver return to the frontcourt as key pieces as well. Whitfield’s brother, Jordan, and Ja’Cor Nelson are two freshmen guards who should see minutes in smaller lineups. Campbell’s surprise run through the Big South Tournament last year may be skewing expectations a bit for this year’s team. Yes, Clemons is an elite scorer, but there are still some glaring issues, namely on the glass and defensively on the wings.
8. Charleston Southern– Barclay Radebaugh’s Bucs were among the worst defensive teams in the country last year (although they improved as the season went along), and they weren’t competitive against the top of the league. CSU also lost point guard Armel Potter to graduation, and Radebaugh will probably have to move his second-best scorer, Cortez Mitchell, on the ball full time. Mitchell moving to the point means elite scorer Christian Keeling can move to the 2 instead of playing the 3 and even some 4 like he was forced to last year. At 6-foot-4, Keeling should be a nightmare for the smaller opposing off guards in the league. To fill in the rest of the regular rotation, Radebaugh will need big minutes from JUCO Travis McConico and athletic freshman Phlandrous Fleming, interchangeable at the 3/4. Veteran Javis Howard provides a solid presence at the 5. With this lineup, Radebaugh should return to his up-tempo, high-volume 3-point attack. Last year’s Bucs were 197th in 3-point attempt rate after finishing the prior four seasons ranking 13th, 7th, 23rd and 12th. Of course last year’s team didn’t have Saah Nimley, either. While the offense should be more Radebaughesque, I don’t see where the defense makes enough improvement for CSU to make a significant jump up a deeper Big South leaderboard.
9. Longwood– After making some decent strides in building Longwood into a Big South threat, disaster struck Jayson Gee’s squad by way of injury. Before the season even began, Gee was down to his second or third option at the point, and by the time the season ended, he basically had a six-man rotation. That provides some necessary context for the 16-game losing streak to end the year. This year Gee has a 17-man roster in response to likely PTSD symptoms brought on by last season. That should allow Gee to play at the up-tempo pace he prefers and pressure ball handlers defensively. With Juan Munoz healthy and slotted to run the point, Isaiah Walton can move back to the wing, but with an added skill set and should be one of the most versatile players in the league, especially defensively. Walton will be joined by Mt. St. Mary’s transfer BK Ashe to form one of the better scoring combos in the league. Kamil Chapman should see plenty of minutes at both guard spots as a freshman, while a healthy frontcourt means JaShaun Smith can move to the wing as a sophomore after playing out of position last year and wreak havoc on the perimeter as Gee’s best overall defender. Chris Shields can play the 3 and 4 as well with his ability to shoot from outside (hopefully more efficiently this year). The frontcourt was just as injured as the backcourt, with Jahleem Montague missing the season and veteran Damarion Geter playing just three games. Montague is the most likely to provide offense in the paint, though neither option is really much of a post presence. After an obscene amount of injuries, Gee should have a roster that offers the flexibility and interchangeable parts he prefers, and the Lancers shouldn’t be taken lightly.
10. Presbyterian– It’s the end of an era for the Blue Hose, as Gregg Nibert says goodbye after 28 seasons on the sideline in Clinton, South Carolina. He’ll be replaced by Dustin Kerns, who will bring Mike Young’s hard-nosed man-to-man defense and prolific 3-point motion offense with him from Wofford. That’s essentially the opposite of Nibert’s more recent teams, which have relied on zone defenses and a dominant interior scorer. Kerns does have a fairly solid inside-outside trio to build around this year with senior point guard Davon Bell returning from injury, senior wing Reggie Dillard and versatile 4 Jo’Vontae Millner. Millner is the most exciting of the group with pick and pop ability and rebounding prowess. JUCOs Montenia Nelson and Francois Lewis should be immediate contributors in the backcourt and frontcourt, respectively. Year one will surely be spent implementing a new system on both ends of the floor for Kerns, but winning more than one conference game seems like an attainable goal.
FINAL OUTLOOK: UNCA looks like they’re poised to return to the dance, and should be a tough out as a 15 seed if they get there. Liberty is a real threat with McKay’s defense fully integrated in year three, while Winthrop can’t be counted out because of Cooks. Both should be CIT invites should they not win the Big South Tournament, but the league is legitimately at least seven deep this year. That’s a good thing.
BIG SOUTH PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Xavier Cooks, Winthrop
ALL BIG SOUTH FIRST TEAM:
Xavier Cooks, Winthrop
MaCio Teague, UNC Asheville
Ahmad Thomas, UNC Asheville
Chris Clemons, Campbell
Ed Polite, Radford
ALL BIG SOUTH SECOND TEAM:
Christian Keeling, Charleston Southern
Jahaad Proctor, High Point
David Efianayi, Gardner Webb
Ryan Kemrite, Liberty
Isaiah Walton, Longwood