2001-02 Big South Conference Preview
by Jon Gonzalez
For 2001-02, the Big South might as well be called the big four because that’s how many teams have a realistic chance of winning the conference. Winthrop, Radford, UNC-Asheville and Coastal Carolina will all butt heads in their quest for Big South supremacy. All four squads are evenly matched, so it will be interesting to see who comes out on top in the end. Winthrop will be led by senior high-flyer Greg Lewis and coach Gregg Marshall, who is one of the top young coaching prospects in the country. Defending regular season champion Radford welcomes back 7-0 center Andrey Savtchenko and may be the best defensive team in the Big South. UNC-Asheville will miss leading scorer Brett Carey but remains dangerous due to the return of guard Andre Smith. The Chanticleers of Coastal Carolina feature Big South Player of the Year Torrey Butler, who alone is good enough to keep CC in championship contention.
And now for the teams who don’t have such a good chance of winning the Big South: High Point, Elon, Liberty, Charleston Southern, and Birmingham Southern. High Point’s best bet at avoiding the conference cellar rests in the hands of brothers Dustin and Derek Van Weerdhuizen. Elon has one of the best guards in the conference in Brendon Rowell, but not much else. Charleston Southern lost 19 games last year and may lose even more in 2001-02 after the loss of three starters. Liberty will need a lot of help from its newcomers to stay competitive after the loss of four starters. Birmingham-Southern, who will not be officially part of the Big South until 2003-2004, went 17-9 last year but face a tougher schedule in 2001-02.
1. Winthrop: The last time the Eagles were on the outside looking into the NCAA Tournament Bill Clinton was president and the Spice Girls were on the top ten charts. After three straight trips to the big dance, Winthrop may have what it takes to extend the streak to four. This year, however, the Eagles will have two tourney goals: making the thing and then winning the play-in game if need be, something they couldn’t do last year. Leading the charge in 2001-02 is head coach Gregg Marshall, who deserves a little more respect for the job he has done in three years at Winthrop.
Marshall lost only one starter, guard Roger Toxey, and has Marcus (don’t call me Martha) Stewart, Derrick Knox, Eyo Effiong, Greg Lewis and Tywan Harris all back for their senior seasons. Stewart and Effiong are the team’s best post players while guards Knox and Harris are very solid in the backcourt. The best player of the group could be forward Greg Lewis, who has more ups than a spaceship. Not to be outdone is junior guard Pierre Wooten, who has quietly become one of the best point guards in the conference. The incumbents will be joined by an impressive group of newcomers highlighted by guard Alex English Jr. English, son of NBA great Alex English, is trying to rebound from two injury plagued seasons at William & Mary. If the Eagles can stay healthy and score in the paint, look out.
2. Radford: The Highlanders have this little quirk that’s kind of a problem for them: they win regular season championships, but lose in the conference tournament. Case in point last season when Radford went 12-2 and then lost in the tourney final to Winthrop. Coach Ron Bradley hopes to buck this current trend with an older, more experienced Andrey Savtchenko. The 7-0 senior averaged 15.4 points a game last season and his NBA-size and strength could be the factors that determine if Radford can get back to the big dance. Savtchenko could have some company on the blocks in the form of fellow seven-footer Jason Bees. If the freshman can acclimate himself to the college game quickly, Savtchenko and Bees could form a tandem that will give opposing Big South coaches nightmares.
Also inside is the wiry Corry Watkins, a 6-7 tweener whose size can create match-up problems. Junior Raymond “Peanut” Arrington becomes the main man in the backcourt with the departure of leading scorer Jason Williams. Arrington has a killer first step and has proven he can be a dependable jump shooter. If Arrington can pick up Williams’ slack and the frontcourt produces, Radford will be tough.
3. Coastal Carolina: You can’t stop Torrey Butler, you can only hope to . . . yeah, you know the rest. The 6-3 guard/forward was butter-smooth in 2000-01, averaging 19.4 points per game and shooting 47 percent from three-point land. Oh and by the way, Butler is the reigning Big South Player of the Year. However, coach Pete Strickland’s team is more than just one player. The Chanticleers also feature one of the conferences’ best playmakers, sophomore point guard Alvin Green. Green has a knack for finding the open man, and since Butler draws most of the opposition’s attention, many a Chanticleer will benefit from Green’s unselfishness.
One Chant who needs to convert on passes he receives is junior Antonio Darden. The 6-3 forward is the most talented player in the Coastal Carolina frontcourt, which was the Chants’ Achilles heel last season. He and fellow forward junior Clint Reed must produce to take the pressure off of the backcourt. If the frontcourt cannot step up, Coastal Carolina must depend on its athleticism, depth (the Chants return nine of their ten top players) and guard play. But if the frontcourt plays decently and Butler continues to be magnificent, Strickland may finally see a glimmer of success after three abysmal years.
4. UNC-Asheville: Filling in the gaps; that will be the goal of UNC-A head coach Eddie Biedenbach as he leads his Bulldogs into 2001-02. Biedenbach lost 20.4 points a game with the departures of guard Brett Carey (13.3 points per game) and center Adam Earnhardt (7.1 points per game). So who will be the plugs in UNC-A’s proverbial leaking dam? There are several candidates. Junior Andre Smith showed great potential last season scoring 10.4 points per game and figures to be much improved. Likewise with veteran forwards Colin Shaw and Robby Joyner, who must provide stability in the paint.
Other key returning post players include sophomore forward Alan Lovett and junior center Ben McGonagil, both of whom have tremendous upsides.
It may be the newcomers, however, that will determine if UNC-A can fill its biggest void: the blank space that sits in the number of NCAA Tournament appearances made column in the UNC-A record book. Junior transfer Alex Kragel will step in and replace the departed Carey. Kragel has good height for a guard and can shoot the lights out. Freshman swingmen Bryan McCullough and Julian Capel, cousin of Jason and Jeff, will both be called upon to do what they did best in high school, score. 6-10 freshman center Jon Higginbotham may be too big not to be worked into the Bulldog’s rotation. No matter who plays, the Bulldogs must raise their field goal percentage to win.
5. Elon: The team formerly known as the Fighting Christians is looking for one thing in 2001-02: respectability. Elon was atrocious last year, finishing 9-20 and 4-10 in conference. This year, however, the Phoenix may not be all that bad. Three starters are back for coach Mark Simmons’ club including guard Brendon Rowell, one of the most unheralded players in the conference. Rowell was nothing short of fantastic last year, averaging 18.8 points per game. He is a legitimate contender for Big South Player of the Year in 2001-02. As good as Rowell was last season, he could have been better if he had some help around him. Simmons is hoping other players besides Rowell step up and make major contributions.
It is up to players like senior David Hall and junior Shamar Johnson, both returning starters, to buck the conception that Elon is more than just a one-man team. Likewise, junior guard Drew Kusterman has to provide scoring off the bench and become a dependable sixth man. Rowell’s real help may come in the form of two JuCo transfers recruited by Simmons. Guard Carlos Moreira can spot up and drain the open jumper while fellow guard Quinton McCleod is as quick as any one in the Big South. The Phoenix lost 20 games last year, 14 of which were on the road, so they proved they could at least be decent at home. It’s winning away from Alumni Gym that will define Elon in 2001-02.
6. High Point: Break up the Panthers. Heading into 2001-02, High Point returns all of its starters, all of whom are either juniors or seniors. The Van Weerdhuizen brothers, Dustin and Derek, are back and so is Jermaine Wallace. Junior Dustin, the better of the two brothers, proved last season he is a player to be reckoned with in the Big South, scoring 11.8 points per game. His brother, Derek, wasn’t too shabby either, averaging 7.6 points per game. Wallace, who can play forward and center, gives the Panthers a legitimate inside threat. Although he is still raw, Wallace is aggressive and has an uncanny ability to find great offensive position in the paint. Joining Wallace in the frontcourt is forward Valdas Kaukenas who has great power but has the tendency to play out-of-control at times.
The key to the Panthers’ success could be the play of senior point guard Doug Alves. Alves played below his potential during most of last season but has the skills to be a solid playmaker. Another player head coach Jerry Steele is counting on is 6-3 senior guard Mantas Ignatavicius. Ignatavicius is not afraid to take the three-ball, but needs to knock the shot down more consistently. With five returning starters and potential on the bench, High Point should be in good shape. But if only the Panthers could make their shots. High Point shot 39.3 percent from the field last season, one of the worst percentages in the conference. Steele’s players would be well advised to stick around after practices and work on jump shooting drills. If High Point can inflate its shooting percentage and Alves can provide consistent play at the point, the Panthers just may have a shot to at least nip at the heels of the conference’s elite.
7. Liberty: Oh, to be a rookie on the Liberty University basketball team. If freshmen on the Flames roster came to Liberty with dreams of playing immediately, well, they will get their wish sooner than later. Thanks to the loss of four, count ‘em four starters, headman Mel Hankinson is faced with a major rebuilding project. Even though he lost four players who collectively averaged 42 points per game last season, Hankinson can take solace in having one experienced holdover and a talented core of newcomers. Senior Chris Caldwell is back for one more year of being the focal point of the Flames offense. The 6-1 guard averaged 16.7 points per game last season despite drawing constant attention from opposing defenses. This season, Caldwell will be expected to lead not only in the scoring column, but in the locker room as well.
Help in the veteran leadership department will also be expected from junior forward Rob Attaway, who may see more minutes in 2001-02. The incoming class of freshmen features two potential game breakers who will be called upon to contribute immediately. 6-6 forward Torin Beeler and 6-2 guard Travis Eisentrout highlight an extremely touted freshmen class. Beeler is a slasher with a nice medium range jumper while Eisentrout has great court awareness and will probably start at the point. Inside, JuCo transfer Jason Sarchet gives the Flames an instant presence in the paint. The 6-10 sophomore has the tools to establish himself as one of the premiere post players in the Big South. If the newcomers can compliment Caldwell, Liberty’s flame may not flicker out as quickly as expected.
8. Charleston Southern: Head coach Jim Platt’s team proved it could play with the Big South’s best last year, defeating Winthrop and Radford down the stretch. The wins were part of an 8-6 finish after the Bucs began the year 2-12. Unfortunately for Platt, the club’s strong finish was keyed by three players he doesn’t have anymore. Forwards O.J. Linney, Nick Mitchell and Ivica Perica are all gone to graduation leaving CSU a little empty in the middle. The exodus in the frontcourt has paved the way for Platt to insert a player he is very high on, freshman center Kevin Warzynski. Platt is so high on the 6-8 Warzynski that he plans for the youngster to be the cornerstone of the CSU program for years to come.
But Warzynski may be a year or two away from reaching his potential, so 6-9 senior Nikola Pejovic will have to be the main man in the middle for the Bucs. Pejovic, as well as freshman Nathan Ball, will be counted on to pick up the rebounding slack for CSU, an area that the team did well in last year. The only unit on the team without any question marks is the backcourt. Point guard Ed O’Neil has great quickness and will be counted on to integrate the inexperienced frontcourt players into the offense. Next to O’Neil, CSU has a pair of junior shooting guards that took great strides in 2000-01, Gene Granger and James Seegars. Both Granger and Seegars bring a vast amount of athleticism to the table, but neither has exceptional shooting ability. If O’Neil can create and Granger and Seegars can hit shots thus taking pressure off of the frontcourt, CSU may be able to avoid the conference cellar.
9. Birmingham-Southern: The Panthers won’t receive full Big South accreditation until 2003-04, yet, they may be better than a handful of teams in the conference. Last season, BSC finished 17-9 as a D-1 independent with one of those wins coming at the expense of Big South power Winthrop. This season, the Panthers play 14 games against Big South opponents and could improve upon its 2000-01 record with the return of three starters. While head coach Duane Reboul will sorely miss forward Neal Broome and center Adrian Pryor, Reboul will enjoy having three solid guards return for their senior seasons. Point guard Rashard Willie is quicker than a hiccup and can penetrate with the best of them. Corey Watkins and T.R. Reed have decent shooting range and both could be due for breakout senior campaigns.
6-11 sophomore Michael Bilostinnyi is raw, but should improve drastically as the season progresses by having the chance to start in the middle. Joining Bilostinnyi inside will be freshmen Shema Mbyirukira and Josiah James. Reboul did a wonderful job coaching this group last season and if his guards can excel in 2001-02, the Panthers may wind up with a winning record against Big South opposition. BSC could be the surprise team of a conference there not even officially part of yet.
Big South Superlatives
Regular Season Champ: Winthrop
Tourney Champ: Coastal Carolina
Bubble Burst: Winthrop
Sleeper: High Point
Player of the Year: Brendon Rowell, Elon
Newcomer of the Year: Torin Beeler, Liberty
Coach of the Year: Pete Strickland, Coastal Carolina
Best Name: Peanut Arrington, Radford
Best Shooter: Chris Caldwell, Liberty
Best Defender: Greg Lewis, Winthrop