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Birmingham-Southern Leaves Division I

by - Published July 31, 2006 in Columns




Short Division I Tenure May Be Instructive

by Jerry Hinnen

It’s a debate that may very well have started as soon as intercollegiate athletics were invented. Perhaps right there on the sidelines of Princeton and Rutgers’ historic 1869 football clash, faculty and students alike were already wondering: can an institution of higher learning succeed at the highest levels both academically and athletically?

Put another way, can universities serve two masters – as the saying goes, and as opponents of big-budget athletics might phrase it, both God and mammon? As NCAA Division I athletics have become bigger and bigger business, the answer to that question has, over time, seemingly become a firmer and firmer “No.”

There are always exceptions, of course. But whether it’s a power forward gaining admittance to St. Bonaventure on the strength a welding certificate, the perennial football futility at Rutgers or Temple, or the “Last Amateurs” of the Patriot League finally playing for scholarship money, the majority of evidence has indicated that schools (particularly smaller ones) can either uphold their academic standards or their athletic standards – or join the difficult, never-ending struggle to do both. This June, that struggle claimed its most recent victim, now former Big South Conference member and future Division III participant Birmingham-Southern College.

Birmingham-Southern, or BSC as the school is often referred to, has had a long and distinguished athletic tradition. Its football teams routinely lined up against Auburn and Alabama before World War II. Its proud men’s basketball program peaked during the 1990s as under head coach Duane Reboul the Panthers took both the ’90 and ’95 NAIA national titles. By the mid-’90s Brian Shoop and Preston Goldfarb had turned BSC’s baseball and men’s soccer teams, respectively, into national championship contenders as well.

Academically, under the leadership of longtime president Dr. Neal Berte BSC emerged from a period of uncertainty to become one of the Southeast’s leading liberal arts colleges. A substantially increased endowment helped the small campus on Birmingham’s west side see a construction boom in the mid-to-late ’90s, with dedications for a number of state-of-the-art buildings and plans finalized for a new multi-million dollar science building.

Amidst these kinds of successes, it’s not surprising that Berte’s 1999 announcement that the Board of Trustees had approved a plan to move BSC from NAIA to NCAA Division I was met with ample – if not unbridled – optimism. The school would have to dramatically increase its athletic budget, remodel and expand nearly all its facilities, find a conference, and spend the requisite several years wandering the post-seasonless wilderness of ‘provisional’ NCAA membership. Some wondered if the intangible rewards of competing in Division I – a raised national, regional, and city-wide profile, fielding the best athletics team possible for a school of BSC’s size – were worth the very tangible millions of dollars it would take to make the leap.

But with images of the Panthers taking the court or field in various NCAA Tournaments creating excitement throughout the BSC community, the leap was made. And on the surface, things went perfectly according to plan. New athletic director (and Jefferson-Pilot SEC hoops color analyst) Joe Dean Jr. helped BSC quickly find membership in the Big South Conference. Expansion projects involving the soccer, baseball, and basketball facilities were each completed on time. The baseball team provided the perfect sending-off by winning the NAIA national title in their final year of eligibility.

And once BSC started Division I play, the Panthers’ on-court successes were beyond what almost anyone expected. The brand-new women’s basketball team was immediately competitive, as were other several other new sports. The baseball and men’s soccer teams immediately put their stamp on both the Big South and national scene, with baseball qualifying for the school’s first NCAA Tournament in 2004. Women’s soccer followed suit the following season. The previous winter, in only their first year of full NCAA membership, the men’s hoops team had shared the Big South regular season crown and earned ESPN.com’s endorsement for the league’s first NIT bid. For the next two years, despite being Division I’s fourth-smallest institution, BSC appeared to be the model for a successful transition: successful programs across the board, growing fan interest, popular coaches, national press.

Then, last May, the Division I program BSC had put so much effort and money into building came suddenly crashing down.

Dr. David Pollick, sworn in as BSC’s new president in summer 2004, started taking a closer look at BSC’s debt-fueled and increasingly threatening cash crunch in the early stages of this year. He claims that he found a much darker side to BSC’s apparently seamless move to D-I: that the school’s athletics department was reportedly running a staggering $5-5.7 million yearly deficit, nearly equal to the department’s $6.5 million entire annual budget.

According to Pollick, expenditures for building and maintaining the D-I program had run far beyond the school’s initial estimates. He recommended to the Board of Trustees that the school shelve its budding top-level programs and move to non-scholarship NCAA Division III.

When the news broke that the Board of Trustees was poised to dismantle the Division I program, only a few short days before the deciding vote reaction was fierce on either side of the debate. Students and athletes protested in favor of saving the program, various Panthers telling news cameras they would likely not have attended BSC without their athletic scholarships. The BSC faculty voted in favor of the move, pointing out that the school could hardly claim to cherish academics while spending more on athletic scholarships than academic. Dean and the shocked athletics department prepared a presentation for the Board and vocally opposed the move. Pollick pointed out that BSC’s academic peers were not the large universities that made up the Big South but the liberal arts colleges like Rhodes, Centre, and Sewanee, that made up its likely new home in Division III, the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference. Opponents responded that quality, i.e. scholarship athletics had always had a special place at BSC that they did not at long-time DIII schools.

In the end, the Board sided with Pollick. Current and ex-athletes ripped the President in the pages of the Birmingham News. “This is a very poor decision motivated by one man’s – David Pollick’s – selfish agenda,” said one former baseball player. Dean expressed his disappointment but promised to soldier on. The parent of one recruit blasted Pollick for keeping the financial deliberations secret while his daughter made her plans to enroll at what she believed would be a Division I school. Angry letters to the editor appeared in the News almost immediately.

The BSC athletics department predictably splintered within days. Shoop moved across town to coach the UAB Blazers, taking a number of his BSC players with him. (The blog of one former BSC baseball player changed its background colors from BSC’s black-and-gold to UAB’s green.) Players from virtually every team on campus transferred out in droves. Dean was forced to announce that due to the transfers, neither the baseball nor men’s basketball teams would compete in 2006-2007. And on July 13, Reboul stepped down after 17 years on the BSC sidelines, admitting that the “changes” in the program’s direction had led to his decision.

So what does Birmingham-Southern have to show for their six years of effort and dedication to the ideal of competing at the highest athletic level? Mounting bills for state-of-the-art facilities that will be out-of-place and unnecessarily large in Division III. A divided and in many cases disgruntled alumni base. The loss of several talented coaches. A president that many in the BSC community no longer trust. And for fans of Reboul and his basketball team, the bitter taste of knowing how attainable the now-abandoned goal of an NCAA Tournament berth had already become.

A quick scan of U.S. News and World Report‘s rankings of top liberal arts colleges show that not many of these top academic schools take their athletics Division I seriously. Following BSC’s decision, only 9 of the top 100 compete at the D-I level. But that number is about to return to 10: in a move unrelated to BSC’s departure, Presbyterian College of South Carolina is readying for a move into the Big South.

Presbyterian’s decision is, certainly, based on a desire to pursue excellence athletically as well as academically. Balancing those two pursuits as an institution will be, as always, a noble goal. But if PC is doing any double-checking as to how realistic that goal is, contacting schools like St. Bonaventure and Tulane and Vanderbilt, they should make sure to look up the connection to a certain school in Birmingham as well.

     

Big South Semifinal Recap

by - Published March 4, 2006 in Conference Notes



Big South Conference Tournament Semifinal Recap

by Jerry Hinnen

After chaos reigning in the Big South tournament brackets the past several seasons, the 2006 conference championship will be decided by the top two seeds: one the league’s most on-paper talented team and regular season champion, the other its personal nemesis and the conference’s hottest squad. The championship game, airing on ESPN2 at noon Eastern Saturday, should be the proverbial “doozy,” and will be an excellent chance for the up-and-coming league to show why it has risen all to No. 19 in this season’s conference RPI ratings, far surpassing rival leagues the SoCon (No. 23) and Atlantic Sun (No. 28).

No. 1 Winthrop 77, No. 5 High Point 65

The defending Big South champions and 2006 regular season titlists will play for an NCAA berth on their own floor Saturday after a late run turned away a valiant effort from fifth-seeded High Point, 77-65.

After a three-point play by Mike Jefferson brought the visiting Panthers within two at 57-55 with 4:58 to play, Winthrop’s All-Big South guard Torrell Martin connected for back-to-back treys that pushed the lead back to eight less than 60 seconds later. High Point would come no closer than seven the rest of the way.

Martin scored 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting from the floor. He got a big hand from point guard Chris Gaynor, who took only one shot in last Saturday’s regular season-title clinching win over Birmingham-Southern, but Thursday connected on 5-of-7 three-pointers to tie his career-high with 17 points. (Gaynor also dished out a team-high five assists while turning the ball over twice.) Senior forwards James Shuler and Craig Bradshaw each finished in double figures with 11 and 16 points, respectively, and sophomore forward Taj McCullough continued his strong play off the bench with 9 points.

Despite the loss, there was plenty for High Point fans to be encouraged about the team’s prospects for the 2006-07 season. The Panthers – whose roster is Division I’s second-youngest, featuring only two seniors and one junior – were led by sophomore guard Mike Jefferson’s 25-point explosion on 46 percent (6-of-13) three-point shooting. Jefferson also collected five assists (though with five turnovers) and All-Big South forward Arizona Reid, a sophomore, finished with 17 points.

The Winthrop big men did an excellent job, however, keeping the aggressive Reid off the boards. “A.Z” finished with only three rebounds in 39 minutes, well off his season average of 8.9 a game and nine fewer than he grabbed in the Panthers’ quarterfinal win over Radford. Bradshaw, Shuler, and Martin each shared game-high honors with eight boards apiece as the Eagles owned a 45-30 edge on the glass.

The only ill omen for Winthrop heading into Saturday’s title tilt? The Eagles committed an ugly 21 turnovers in the semifinal, eight of them by Bradshaw alone.

No. 2 Coastal Carolina 73, No.6 Charleston Southern 67

A late Charleston Southern surge fell short as the second-seeded Chanticleers advanced to face Winthrop and potentially complete a devastating season sweep of the conference favorites.

Over the past two seasons, Winthrop has posted an overwhelming 27-1 record against Big South opponents – all opponents, that is, except Coastal, who handed the Eagles their only 2005 Big South loss and took both meetings this season, including a 64-57 win in Rock Hill Jan. 24 that remains Winthrop’s only home Big South loss either year.

At halftime of their semifinal against CSU, the Chants looked like they would cruise into their showdown with the Eagles. They led 40-22 with conference Player of the Year Jack Leasure having scored 13 points and freshman dynamo Joseph Harris having already grabbed 10 rebounds.

But Charleston Southern fought back, eventually coming within three, 67-64, on a Trent Drafts three-pointer with 44 seconds to play. But Coastal senior guard Pele Paelay responded with a three of his own to push the lead back to six, before CSU’s Chris Moore hit yet another trey to make it a one-possession game again with 16 seconds remaining. With no choice but to foul, CSU sent Paelay to the line where he sank both shots to ice the win.

CCU junior forward Moses Sonko continued his red-hot play down the stretch by pouring in a game-high 21 points to go with 8 rebounds. Leasure scored an even 20, but by his standards had an off-night shooting the ball, going only 3-of-12 from deep. Paelay added 17 while Harris finished with a huge 16 rebounds, powering the Chants to a 40-27 edge on the glass.

A game after shooting an eye-popping 9-of-11 from outside in the first half against Birmingham-Southern, the Buccaneers went 0-9 in the first half against Coastal and finished only 7-of-26. Moore and Drafts (the latter in his final game as a Buc) shared team-high honors with 16 points each.

As a team that relies on accurate three-point shooting to open things up for its energetic but undersized forwards – only Birmingham-Southern shot for a higher percentage in Big South play from behind the arc – CCU will need to do better than the 5-of-20 from outside it posted against CSU. Winthrop won’t make it easy for them. The Eagles were the conference’s best team at defending the three.

     

Big South Quarterfinal Recap

by - Published March 2, 2006 in Conference Notes



Big South Conference Quarterfinal Recaps

by Jerry Hinnen

No. 6 Charleston Southern 96, No. 3 Birmingham-Southern 76

The curse of the Big South’s third seed continued Tuesday as Charleston Southern upset Birmingham-Southern in Birmingham 96-76 in the Big South quarterfinals. BSC won both regular-season meetings handily, but behind 45 points from guards Chris Moore and Donnell Covington the Buccaneers became the fourth consecutive Big South sixth-seed (and sixth in seventh years) to advance to the semifinals.

For several weeks, Birmingham-Southern’s Achilles heel had been three-point defense, as the Panthers finished last in the conference in opponent’s three-point percentage. Although the Buccaneers hit only 4-of-20 threes in a 62-46 loss to BSC Feb. 20, they took full advantage Tuesday, hitting an unconscious 9-of-11 from deep in the first half on their way to a commanding 48-33 halftime lead.

BSC drew within 13 points twice in the early going in the second half, but Charleston Southern outscored the Panthers 27-15 over a 10-minute period to take an 80-55 lead and put the game well beyond doubt.

Covington hit 8-of-10 from the floor to finish with a game-high 24 points. Moore knocked down 4-of-7 threes to score 21, while Terrell Brown (with 11) and Dwayne Jackson (with 10) also finished in double figures. For the game, Charleston shot 62 percent from the floor and an even 60 percent (12-of-20) from deep.

After starting the season 15-0 at home, BSC lost their final two home games of the season: a battle with Winthrop for the regular season crown Saturday and Tuesday’s crushing defeat, which denied the 19-9 Panthers a shot at a 20-win season. The loss was the worst for BSC in 25 years of games at the Bill Battle Coliseum. Sredrick Powe concluded his BSC career with a team-high 14 points.

Charleston advances to face in-state rival Coastal Carolina in Thursday’s semifinals at regular-season champ Winthrop.

No. 1 Winthrop 93, No. 8 Liberty 52

Winthrop avenged a shocking upset at Liberty in the season’s final week by blasting the Flames at home Tuesday 93-52. Nine different Eagles scored at least four points as the home team opened up a 17-2 lead in the early going and cruised from there.

Liberty’s All-Big South guard Larry Blair led the Flames with 25 points, but shot only 8-of-23 from the field after his 37-point explosion in the teams’ previous meeting, could be said to have been relatively contained. Damien Hubbard finished with an 11-point, 10-rebound double-double, but no other Flame scored more than seven. For the game, the Eagles held the Flames to only 38 percent shooting.

By contrast, Winthrop shot 56 percent and out-rebounded the Flames 36-24. Point guard Chris Gaynor finished with 13 points (on 5-of-5 shooting) to go with 5 assists, a steal, and no turnovers. Five other Eagles finished in double figures, including a career-high 15 for sophomore forward Taj McCullough.

As the Big South’s regular-season champion, Winthrop will host both conference semifinals. They will take on fifth-seed High Point, which Winthrop swept in the regular season.

No. 5 High Point 87, No. 4 Radford 84

High Point senior Issa Konare was named the Big South’s Defensive Player of the Year this week, but it was his offense that saved the Panthers in their 87-84 road upset of Radford Tuesday.

An Andre Bynum three-pointer for the Highlanders with 55 seconds left capped a furious Radford rally that saw them come from 11 back with 5:15 to play to tie the game at 81. But Konare stepped up to hit his second three of the game just 12 seconds later. Bynum missed a three on the Highlanders’ next possession and High Point held on for the victory.

While Konare finished with a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double, it was All-Big South forward Arizona Reid who was the Panthers’ MVP. The sophomore finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds to lead HPU in both categories. The Panthers out-rebounded the Highlanders and conference rebounding leader Chris Oliver 45-30, despite Oliver’s game-high 15 boards.

The game marked the end of the careers of Radford seniors Oliver and Whit Holcomb-Faye. Holcomb-Faye, the conference’s third all-time leading scorer, finished with 33 points on 12-of-26 shooting, but it wasn’t enough as the Panthers took the rubber match in the season series.

No. 2 Coastal Carolina 78, No. 7 UNC-Asheville 62

The second-seeded Chanticleers pulled away from the visiting Bulldogs in the last 10 minutes to advance to the Big South semifinals with a 16-point victory. Asheville led 42-40 at halftime and 51-49 on an Oliver Holmes free throw with 11:30 remaining, but the red-hot Chants outscored UNCA 29-11 down the stretch to claim their 13th win in their last 14 games.

CCU’s sophomore sharpshooter Jack Leasure was named the Big South Player of the Year this week and showed why Tuesday, shooting 3-of-7 from deep to tie teammate forward Moses Sonko and UNCA big man Joe Barber for game-high honors with 17 points. Three other Chants joined Sonko and Leasure in double figures, including 2005 Big South Player of the Year Pele Paelay, who notched a 15-point, 12-rebound double-double. Coastal also dominated at the free throw line, hitting 23-of-26 to UNCA’s 16-of-27.

The loss ended an injury-ridden and disappointing season for UNCA, which was picked to finish third in the Big South in the pre-season. Barber’s 17 and 7 boards led the Bulldogs.

     

Big South Notebook

by - Published February 24, 2006 in Conference Notes



Big South Conference Notebook

by Jerry Hinnen

Down to the Wire

Every year, something NFL fans look forward to is the late-season appearance of charts and lists detailing exactly what scenarios need to play out for their team to make the playoffs. Those fans now have something in common with the scenario-studying supporters of Winthrop, Birmingham-Southern, and Coastal Carolina, each of whom enters the final days of conference play with a shot at Big South title and the league’s all-important top seed for the conference tournament. (The Big South plays at the higher seed’s home court, the semifinals at the regular season champion, and title game at the top remaining seed.)

For more than a month, the Big South has looked like a two-horse race going down to this Saturday’s photo finish between Birmingham-Southern and Winthrop in Birmingham. But after smoking-hot Coastal Carolina upended BSC at home 69-59 last Saturday and cellar-dwelling Liberty shocked Winthrop 78-71 in Lynchburg Monday night, 10-4 Coastal now has their own slim shot at grabbing the Big South’s top slot. In the end, BSC’s and Winthrop’s losses could mean nothing at all, or they could cost them a shot at the NCAA Tournament.

Here’s what each team needs to happen to claim the Big South title and – to borrow a phrase from the NFL – finish with home court advantage throughout the Big South tourney.

Birmingham-Southern
Record: 12-3. Schedule: vs. Winthrop, Feb. 25

The Panthers have the simplest – and, many would say, easiest – path to the Big South championship. With Monday’s 62-46 road thrashing of Charleston Southern behind them, if BSC can hold serve against Winthrop in Bill Battle Coliseum Saturday they will claim the league title outright with a 13-3 record.

There’s plenty of reason to expect them to do so. BSC currently holds the nation’s sixth-longest home winning streak at 15 games, one boosted by a perfect 7-0 record at home in Big South play this season. Birmingham is the league’s longest road trip and Winthrop’s game Thursday night against High Point will do the Eagles no favors as they try to prepare. To boot, some Panthers – most notably 6-9 forward Thomas Viglianco, who totaled three field goals in BSC’s last four losses combined, all on the road – appear much more comfortable in the friendly confines of Bill Battle.

But lest Panther fans get too confident, there remains the matter of Winthrop’s 84-43 bludgeoning of BSC at home Jan. 5, the program’s worst loss since the 2000 season. It also remains to be seen how well the Panthers will deal with a tight endgame situation: remarkably, only one of BSC’s 15 Big South contests have been decided by fewer than 10 points.

Not that BSC will complain, but everything will ride on the game with Winthrop. Because the Panthers would lose tiebreakers with both the Eagles (who would have swept them head-to-head) and Coastal (who wins the tie by virtue of their sweep over Winthrop) there is no scenario in which BSC loses Saturday and still wins the top seed.

Winthrop
Record: 11-3. Schedule: vs. High Point, Feb. 23; at Birmingham-Southern, Feb. 25

Like the Panthers, the Eagles still control their own destiny, even after the letdown at Liberty. Defeat High Point at home and BSC on the road, and Winthrop will own another championship banner and be only three home games away from earning their second straight trip to the NCAAs. Do that, and very few fans will remember the Eagles lost three games in a conference many expected them to romp through undefeated.

It won’t be easy. High Point gave the Eagles fits in a 70-67 loss at High Point and after a brief slump, the Panthers look to be in confident form again after a spirited BracketBusters performance on the road at Loyola (Md.) and an 88-67 home whipping of UNC-Asheville Monday. And as noted above, the Eagles won’t just be playing Birmingham-Southern Saturday: they’ll be facing the Big South’s best home team, on that team’s Homecoming, in arguably that program’s biggest game in its history, all on one day of rest. Those aren’t exactly the circumstances Gregg Marshall would choose to play a winner-take-all championship game under. Losses in both games would very likely result in Winthrop’s sliding all the way to the third seed; Coastal would have to lose both their remaining games, at Liberty and at Radford, to keep the Eagles in second.

There is good news for Winthrop. For starters, they could get a mulligan on a loss to High Point. If Coastal drops either of their final two games (on the road to both Liberty and Radford) a win at BSC gives them the top seed anyway as both teams would be 12-4.

Second, the Liberty loss may have been a legitimate fluke. Winthrop had been playing well of late (their previous three games had been shellackings of Radford and UNC-Asheville and their epic 98-97 double-overtime win over Northern Illinois) and caught both Liberty and the Flames’ inspirational Larry Blair playing their best game of the season. It seems unlikely that players like point guard Chris Gaynor – who leads the Big South in assist-to-turnover ratio but had only one dish Monday – or forward James Shuler – who took only five shots against the Flames and hit just one – won’t improve in the week’s later two games.

But if they and the Eagles don’t, what has been a successful but ultimately disappointing season may end with even further disappointment.

Coastal Carolina
Record: 10-4. Schedule: at Liberty Feb. 23, at Radford Feb. 25.

Thursday night, you could find High Point fans decked out in purple face paint, purple wigs, and purple HPU t-shirts, and even they wouldn’t be rooting as hard for the Panthers as the fans down the road at Coastal. There is only one scenario in which Coastal wins the top seed and brings the Big South semifinals to Kimbel Arena: CCU wins over Liberty and Radford combined with a Winthrop loss to High Point and a Birmingham-Southern loss to Winthrop. Any other combination of results sees CCU nabbing the second seed at best.

While the Chanticleer fans might be forgiven for scoreboard watching Thursday and Saturday, the Coastal players themselves would be well-advised to focus on the opponents in front of them. Liberty and their supporters will be brimming with confidence for Thursday’s home game, while Radford dealt Coastal their only loss in their last eleven games, a 70-69 overtime win in Conway Jan. 21. A loss in either game would remove CCU from title consideration.

It would not necessarily, however, remove them the battle for second. If Winthrop loses both of their contests, CCU’s sweep of the Eagles means just one win would be enough for the second seed.

However, thanks to their season sweep of Winthrop, a pair of CCU wins guarantees them no worse than the second seed. Coastal would finish 12-4, would earn a tie with whichever team loses in Birmingham, and would win the tiebreak with either as well: with Winthrop thanks to head-to-head, and with BSC by virtue of a better record against the conference’s highest seed (i.e., Winthrop).

On the flip side, a pair of Coastal losses (assuming Radford defeats last-place VMI Thursday) would drop the Chants all the way to fourth place behind the Highlanders, who would tie the Chants at 10-6 and take the tiebreaker based on their head-to-head sweep.

Got all that?

Moving up in BracketBusters

If the Big South’s continued participation in the BracketBusters event goes as well as it did in this, its first year, it will be something the conference’s fans will look forward to on an annual basis.

The three Big South teams involved – Winthrop, High Point, and UNC-Asheville – all put together solid performances that showed why the conference, now all the way up to No. 19 in stats guru Ken Pomeroy’s conference RPI (ahead of such notable conferences as the Ohio Valley, Patriot League, and most significantly the SoCon), is on the rise.

The biggest win belonged to Winthrop, 98-97 home victors over MAC West Division leader Northern Illinois in double overtime. James Shuler poured in a career-high 27 points, including the free throws that sent the game into overtime, the three-pointer that sent the game into a second overtime, and the three-pointer that won it with 3.1 seconds remaining.

“That’s the best ball game in my tenure,” Gregg Marshall told the Rock Hill Herald. “It would have been a hard one to lose, was a great one to win.”

The Big South’s other BracketBuster teams did the conference proud as well. Although a late 16-2 Greyhound run cost High Point a road win over Loyola (Md.), behind freshman Justin Dunn’s 21 points the Panthers recovered from a recent cold streak to control the game for most of the 40 minutes. UNC-Asheville’s hometown newspaper predicted a 12-point loss in their match-up with the OVC’s Eastern Kentucky Colonels, but Joe Barber’s 21 points helped the Bulldogs to a big second-half lead and an eventual 83-77 win.

As part of the BracketBusters agreement, Loyola and Eastern Kentucky will return the home game favor to HPU and UNCA as part of either the 2006 or 2007 non-conference season.

Around the league

  • The aftershocks of Liberty’s win over Winthrop weren’t just felt at the top of the Big South standings. The victory bumped the 3-11 Flames out of a tie for the conference cellar with VMI and into the eighth and final spot in the Big South tourney. Making matters worse for the Keydets, their best shot for a late-season victory slipped away Saturday when they lost 59-48 on the road to Charleston Southern in an offensive performance coach Duggar Baucom told the Chalreston Post and Courier was “pitiful.” VMI closes at home against Radford Thursday.
  • The Big South’s schedule-makers could hardly have done a better job in putting together this season’s final Saturday slate. Besides the likely Game of the Year between BSC and Winthrop, Radford will host CCU in a game that could decide the third seed, and even Charleston Southern and UNC-Asheville, currently tied for sixth at 6-9, will go head-to-head to decide which team gets a one-place bump in the standings.
  • It’s a great time to be a scorer in the Big South. BSC’s James Collins (with a career-high 27) and Coastal’s Jack Leasure (22) combined for 49 points in their meeting last Saturday; Winthrop’s Torrell Martin (a career-high 32) and Liberty’s Larry Blair (37) combined for 69 points in their clash Monday; and Radford’s Whit Holcomb-Faye scored 37 and 36 points, respectively, in wins over Charleston Southern and Liberty.

Game of the Week: Winthrop at Birmingham-Southern, Saturday, 7 p.m.

Well, duh. The biggest Big South regular-season game in recent memory will feature any number of intriguing match-ups, but perhaps the most significant will pair shooting guards James Collins and Torrell Martin. Both are the most explosive players for their respective teams, and if they find a hot streak from outside, could swing the balance of the game single-handedly. Statistically, the Eagles’ Martin will face a much looser three-point defense than will Collins; BSC ranks dead-last in the conference in opponent’s three-point shooting percentage. But Winthrop will also have to pay much more attention to BSC’s post players than vice versa. Center Sredrick Powe still leads the nation in field goal percentage and dangerous power forward Dwayne Paul averages 11.3 points a game, while Winthrop center Phillip Williams is coming off of a 0-6 game against Liberty and power forward Craig Bradshaw spends much of his time on the perimeter. If the Eagle defense collapses too far inside, Collins may find room enough to warm up and shoot the Panthers to their first outright Big South title.

     

Big South Notebook

by - Published February 16, 2006 in Conference Notes



Big South Conference Notebook

by Jerry Hinnen

Teal is the new black
It’s Winthrop and Birmingham-Southern pestering the country’s bracketologists with their tie atop of the Big South standings at 10-2, but the capital-H Hottest team in the Big South is Coastal Carolina, winners of six straight and eight of their last nine to move into sole possession of third place at 8-4 in league play. The Chanticleers now have two full games between themselves and fourth-place Radford after back-to-back road wins, 71-69 over improving Charleston Southern Thursday and an 88-70 pounding of UNC-Asheville Monday at UNCA’s Justice Center.

Third place seemed a long, long way off in the early part of Big South schedule, when the Chants started 0-3 in conference with double-digit losses to VMI, High Point, and Birmingham-Southern, all on the road. (Since that win over Coastal, VMI has gone 1-9 to fall to the league cellar.) But Tennessee refugee Buzz Peterson has since turned CCU into the team neither league leader – particularly conference favorite Winthrop, which the Chants swept in convincing fashion, 64-57 and 64-50 – will want to play come the Big South tournament.

How? A big part of it has been improved play from the CCU backcourt. Reigning Big South Player of the Year Pele Paelay and 2005 Big South Freshman of the Year Jack Leasure both struggled in the early going, the low point coming in the 77-64 loss to BSC when the two combined for 11 points on 5-of-18 shooting. But with senior point guard Colin Stevens inserted into the starting lineup to relieve some of the playmaking burden, the two have rounded into All-Conference form again. The pair combined for 44 points on 11-of-19 shooting from outside the arc (and 15-of-26 overall) in the romp over Asheville, while Stevens dished out seven assists.

But Leasure and Paelay have also benefited from the single biggest factor in CCU’s 180, namely the arrival in the starting lineup of Big South Freshman of the Year front-runner Joseph Harris. The 6-4 forward has been a dynamo on the boards in conference play, averaging an even 8 rebounds a game in the Chants’ nine-game streak, including 16 in a 78-60 win over High Point Feb. 6.

Harris has also done more than just clean the glass. He’s averaged 9.8 points a game in the streak, notching double-doubles against Charleston Southern and High Point, and his 64.6 field goal percentage in Big South play ranks third in the conference. And while Harris isn’t asked to do much playmaking, it was his clutch assist that gave teammate Moses Sonko a layup with 4.2 seconds to play to defeat Charleston Southern Thursday.

With Harris and the improving Sonko in the post, Stevens coolly running the point, and shooters like Paelay and Leasure outside, that 0-3 start is fast becoming little more than an unpleasant footnote.

Milestones
Two of the leaders for 2006 Big South accolades passed major milestones in weekend play. Radford senior Whit Holcomb-Faye scored his 1,741st career point Monday to move into third all-time in the Big South, trailing only Coastal Carolina’s Tony Dunkin and Radford’s Doug Day, with 2,151 and 2,027 points respectively. Two days earlier, Birmingham-Southern’s 73-69 victory over High Point gave head coach Duane Reboul his 400th career win, all of them at the helm for the Panthers.

Holcomb-Faye set his mark in a come-from-behind 81-76 home win over Charleston Southern Monday. The senior guard scored 37 points, tying his career high, on 12-of-22 shooting from the field and 8-of-9 nine free throws. The outburst was Holcomb-Faye’s fourth 30-point game this season and second in only a week after dropping 31 in a 75-64 win over Birmingham-Southern the previous Monday.

Before the BSC victory, the Highlanders had been mired in a three-game losing skid marked by listless play from Holcomb-Faye as he struggled with a thigh injury. But with his injury woes behind him and two more massive games under his belt, Holcomb-Faye – despite a 5-for-17 performance in the Highlanders’ ugly 71-44 loss to Winthrop Saturday – seems likely to emerge from a wide-open field to claim Big South Player of the Year honors.

Likewise, Reboul will receive heavy consideration (along with Buzz Peterson and Gregg Marshall) for Coach of the Year after molding a team with 10 new players (and only five returning lettermen) into co-league leaders with two weeks to play in the season.

The High Point win gave Reboul a career record of 400-121, an impressive 76.7 career winning percentage. The majority of Reboul’s victories came in BSC’s days as one of the nation’s strongest NAIA programs, including national championships in 1991 and 1995. But as the Big South has found out, Reboul is plenty capable of coaching at the NCAA Division I level as well.

“It’s just something that occurs if you’ve been in a program as long as we’ve been in it,” Reboul told the Birmingham News, “particularly if you’re in a good situation with good players and good assistant coaches like we have been. We were fortunate to have had some very good players. We’ve had 17 years – a long streak of good fortune.”

The waters de-muddied
After a couple of weeks spent with Winthrop and Birmingham-Southern well ahead of the pack, VMI and Liberty well behind, and every other team in the conference hovering in the middle, some separation has occurred in the race for the conference tourney’s third and fourth seeds and the first-round home game that come with them.

As mentioned above, Coastal Carolina’s recent hot streak now has them firmly entrenched in third position with an 8-4 record. 7-6 Radford’s big win over the Buccaneers Monday means they can now claim sole possession of fourth, with 6-7 UNC-Asheville lurking a game back. One plus for Radford: their schedule is much kinder, with games still to come against Liberty and VMI and their Winthrop dates behind them. One plus for Asheville: their sweep of the Highlanders means they own the tiebreaker should the two finish with identical records.

Charleston Southern has shown plenty of fire over the last several weeks, thanks in large part to Chris Moore, the sophomore guard whose 17.9 points a game in Big South play is fourth in the conference. But the Buccaneers have missed opportunities to win games against the league’s top half, losing three games to Coastal and Radford – two of them this week – by a combined eight points. They sit in seventh place at 5-8, a half-game back of 5-7 High Point.

High Point looked to be in good shape themselves after a 76-62 win over Radford Feb. 1 put them at 5-4 in conference and in a tie for third with Coastal. But the Panthers – the second-youngest team in all of Division I, with only two seniors and one junior on the entire roster – may have “hit the wall,” losing their last three to Charleston, Coastal, and BSC by a combined 42 points. The schedule eases up from here: three of their four remaining games are home dates with VMI, Asheville, and Liberty. But they will still need Radford to falter to have a shot at fourth.

Around the league

  • Consider Winthrop’s mini-slump over. Since the Eagles’ second stumble against Coastal, the league favorite has come home to paste VMI and Radford by a combined 60 points. Winthrop showed again that they can win either with offense (98 points on 61.3 percent shooting vs. VMI) or defense (44 points and 28.6 percent shooting allowed vs. Radford). 6-11 forward Craig Bradshaw was named Player of the Week for his efforts.
  • VMI and Liberty share the Big South cellar with 2-10 and 2-9 records respectively, and despite the Flames’ Monday night win over Longwood it’s hard to see either claiming another conference win. Neither team hosts a member of the conference’s bottom half. The best shot on paper is VMI’s trip to Charleston Southern, but the Keydets already lost to the Bucs by three at home Jan. 5. If the two teams tie for the basement, VMI would qualify for eighth place – and a spot in the conference tournament – by virtue of their win over Coastal Carolina.
  • This weekend is the Big South’s first participation in the national BracketBusters event. Winthrop will host MAC team Northern Illinois, while High Point travels to take on Loyola-MD of the MAAC and UNC-Asheville visits Eastern Kentucky. A win over the current first-place team in the MAC’s West Division would be a nice feather in Winthrop’s cap and could help push for a 13-seed should the Eagles win the Big South’s automatic bid.

Game of the Week
Birmingham-Southern travels to Conway to take on Coastal Carolina Saturday on Fox Sports South at noon Eastern. As good as the Panthers have been, the Chanticleers can still pip them for the tournament’s second seed if they pick up the victory here and BSC fails to defeat Winthrop at home on Feb. 25 on the final day of the regular season. On the other hand, a Panther win likely means that BSC will be one game away from setting up a winner-take-all showdown with the Eagles for the league title. Although BSC did an excellent job containing Leasure and Paelay in the teams’ first meeting, the Panthers’ defensive performance against High Point Saturday – when they allowed the visiting Panthers to shoot 50 percent from three-point range – will not do against outside shooters of the Chanticleers’ caliber.

     

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2014 Prep School Tour

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Sept. 9: Putnam Science Academy
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