Big South Conference 2007-08 Preview
by Phil Kasiecki
For quite a while now, the Big South has largely been Winthrop’s to lose. They have had challenges, even serious ones like those from Birmingham Southern before they left Division I and Coastal Carolina a couple of years ago, but they’ve prevailed in the end each time. Finally, last March the Eagles broke through in the NCAA Tournament and won a game after several close calls, including in 2005 when they were a controversial No. 15 seed and almost knocked off Tennessee, a controversial No. 2 seed.
Now, those familiar with the Big South will see how much of Winthrop’s success was simply the work of Gregg Marshall and whether or not it can be sustained. After interviewing for several head coaching vacancies, Marshall ultimately left to take the head coaching job at Wichita State. His former assistant of the past four years, Randy Peele, takes over. Peele has been a head coach before, as he led UNC Greensboro from 1995 to 1999. Included was a Southern Conference championship in 1996, his first season. The Eagles have lost star players before, and they lose a couple this time around from last season’s team, but now the coach has changed and that is different from losing players.
If this opens the door for others, who will walk through? The top candidate looks to be High Point, a team with good veterans and the conference’s top returning player, as well as something Winthrop still does have: a solid and underrated floor leader. A team that almost knocked off the Eagles in 2005-06, Coastal Carolina, also has the personnel to do it. That year, the Chanticleers beat the Eagles both times in the regular season, but the Eagles won when it counted in the Big South championship game.
Winthrop wasn’t the only school that changed coaches, as three others will also have new faces patrolling the sidelines this season. Buzz Peterson left Coastal Carolina to take a job with the Charlotte Bobcats in the NBA, rejoining longtime good friend Michael Jordan. Cliff Ellis, most recently the head coach at Auburn, replaces him. Radford replaced Byron Samuels with Brad Greenberg, the older brother of Virginia Tech head coach Seth and most recently his top lieutenant.
Player of the Year: Arizona Reid, High Point
Top Newcomer: TeeJay Bannister, Liberty
Top Freshman: Tovi Bailey, Charleston Southern
Defensive Player of the Year: Travis Holmes, VMI
Best NBA Prospect: Jack Leasure, Coastal Carolina
All-Big South Team
Chris Gaynor, Sr. G, Winthrop
Michael Jenkins, Sr. G, Winthrop
Jack Leasure, Sr. G, Coastal Carolina
Arizona Reid, Sr. F, High Point
Reggie Williams, Sr. F, VMI
Winthrop Eagles (29-5, 14-0 Big South)
Sr. G Chris Gaynor (7.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.4 apg, 1.5 spg)
Sr. G Michael Jenkins (14.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.3 spg)
Sr. G Antwon Harris (5.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg)
Sr. F Taj McCullough (7.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.3 spg)
Jr. C Andy Buechert (junior college transfer)
Schedule Highlights: The Eagles open the season in the Paradise Jam, taking on Illinois-Chicago and either Georgia Tech or Charlotte in the second game. Six home games are on tap in the non-conference schedule, including good matchups with Missouri State, MAC contender Akron, Colonial contender Old Dominion and a BracketBusters game. Among the road games are trips to West Virginia, Mississippi, Miami (Orange Bowl Classic) and improved Marshall. In Big South play, they get an immediate test against a contender as they head to High Point for the opener. A few weeks later, they play three straight on the road.
Outlook: There’s a new leader in town, but the key players aren’t new and know how to win. New head coach Randy Peele has won before as a head coach and now takes over after being an assistant for four years, so everything appears to be in place for the Eagles to win again. They won’t be big, as there’s not much size on the roster, but McCullough should anchor the inside along with junior college transfer Andy Buechert. Freshmen Chris Malcolm, Charles Corbin and George Valentine provide depth inside. The perimeter is where this team will win, as Jenkins will be the go-to guy and Gaynor just simply wins at the point. Gaynor will be counted on to score more while being the consummate floor leader that he is, and he led the conference in assist/turnover ratio last season. Sophomore Mantoris Robinson also returns and will play on the wing. The Eagles were the best defensive team in the conference last season, and expect Peele to emphasize more of the same this season as the key to another championship.
High Point Panthers (22-10, 11-3 Big South)
Sr. G Mike Jefferson (13.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 5.1 apg, 1.3 spg)
So. G Eugene Harris (8.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.0 spg)
Sr. F Jerald Minnis (8.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
Sr. F Arizona Reid (21.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.2 spg)
So. C Cruz Daniels (3.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.0 bpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Panthers will have six non-conference home games, including part of in-season home-and-homes with Longwood and Savannah State. They open the season at Charlotte before departing for Washington in the NIT Season Tip-Off, where they play Utah and either the hosts or New Jersey Tech. Other notable road games are at Dayton and Florida. Big South play will give an early measure of this team’s chances to take the title, as they open with Winthrop at home as the first of three home games in a four-game stretch.
Outlook: If personnel losses and the coaching change make Winthrop vulnerable, the Panthers are sure to be right there to take their place atop the conference. Reid gets much of the publicity, but Jefferson is as much a key to this team as anyone as he runs the show and is the prime complementary scorer. Harris could take some of that burden off him after a nice freshman season, while Minnis helps Reid out inside along with Daniels, who looks to have a high ceiling as well. Right now, Daniels is mainly needed to be a defensive presence, and his ability to block shots will do just that. Tim Burns and Melvin Crowder add backcourt depth, while the frontcourt has several holdovers who haven’t played much and would get a good boost if Josh Lamons bounces back from an injury that limited him to four games last season. Only Winthrop was a better defensive team than the Panthers last season, and expect them to hang their hat on that once again this season.
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (15-15, 7-7 Big South)
So. G Joshua Mack (12.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.5 spg)
Sr. G Jack Leasure (15.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.6 apg, 1.5 spg)
Sr. G Everage Richardson (7.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.2 spg)
Jr. F Joseph Harris (8.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.2 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.3 bpg)
Jr. F Matt Brennan (2.4 ppg, 1.5 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: Six home games plus a neutral site game against Georgia State are on tap in non-conference play. After two home games to open the season, they head on the road to play at Cincinnati, then later play at Southland contender McNeese State and Conference USA contender Houston. They have an in-season home-and-home with UNC Wilmington. After two straight home games to start Big South play, they get tested with three straight road games, starting at High Point and finishing at Winthrop.
Outlook: Buzz Peterson has moved on to an NBA job after bringing the Chanticleers close to the NCAA Tournament a couple of years ago and becoming a consistent contender in the Big South. He didn’t leave the cupboard bare, as a solid perimeter trio returns led by Leasure and Mack. Leasure is set to close out an excellent career, while Mack made an instant impact in his freshman season. Richardson complements both on the wing, and the three played well together last season. There isn’t much size in the frontcourt, but Harris plays bigger inside and Brennan will be asked to do more. Junior college transfer Derek Gillam and freshman Jon Pack, who stand 6’11” and 6’10” respectively, were brought in to add size to the front line. Opponents shot over 46 percent from the field against the Chants last season, so an improvement on defense will be a key to success.
UNC-Asheville Bulldogs (12-19, 6-8 Big South)
Sr. G K.J. Garland (12.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.5 spg)
Sr. G Bryan Smithson (14.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.9 spg)
Sr. F Vincent James (9.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.2 apg)
Sr. F Garrett Moles (3.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg)
Jr. F Reid Augst (6.3 ppg, 1.8 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Bulldogs will play nine non-conference home games, all of them coming in bunches. They open with three straight at home and have consecutive home games three more times. Most notable on the non-conference slate are trips to Virginia Tech, Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina. Three of the first four Big South games are at home.
Outlook: The senior-laden Bulldogs qualify as the dark horse in the conference, especially with the solid senior backcourt of Garland and Smithson. Both can score, with Garland’s ability to score keeping defenses honest, and both are good defensively. The frontcourt has steady veterans in James and Moles, while Augst has the inside track for the other starting spot, although they wouldn’t be very big with that threesome. Transfer Matt Kittrell is a skilled forward who should play right away, and they bring back the tallest player in college basketball in 7’7″ junior Kenny George, who blocked more than two shots per game in 23 games and 10 minutes per game. The Bulldogs will need to improve primarily at the offensive end, as they tied for the worst field goal percentage in the conference and tied for next-to-last in turnovers.
VMI Keydets (14-19, 5-9 Big South)
Sr. G Adam Lonon (2.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 3.6 apg, 1.4 spg)
Jr. G Chavis Holmes (19.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.1 apg, 2.8 spg)
Jr. G Travis Holmes (15.0 pg, 4.9 rpg, 3.2 apg, 3.4 spg)
Sr. F Reggie Williams (28.1 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 4.4 apg, 1.7 spg)
Jr. F Willie Bell (5.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.5 spg)
Schedule Highlights: The Keydets will play seven non-conference home games, including a visit from improved James Madison. They open the season in the Air Force Classic in Colorado Springs, and after that the most difficult game by a good margin is at Ohio State. Three of the first four Big South games are on the road.
Outlook: Dugger Baucom’s team led the nation in scoring thanks to a game plan that emphasized quick possessions, but such a game plan also brings issues like turnovers and defense. The Keydets didn’t do well in the latter area, allowing teams to shoot a whopping 53 percent from the field and allowing more points than any other team by far, and they were out-rebounded by over 10 per game. There is plenty of firepower returning, as Williams declared for the NBA Draft after leading the nation in scoring but returns, and the Holmes twins (one of two pairs of twins in Division I with that last name) also return. Seven-footer Stephen Sargent will add some size inside, but expect this team to try and play at the same speed and try to out-gun teams again this season. With a year together, some improvement would seem likely, and if that happens the Keydets may be able to hit .500 in Big South play.
Liberty Flames (14-17, 8-6 Big South)
Sr. G TeeJay Bannister (transfer from Virginia)
Jr. G Anthony Smith (11.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.3 apg)
Sr. F Rell Porter (2.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.1 apg)
Sr. F Alex McLean (14.5 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.0 apg)
So. F-C Tyler Baker (4.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Flames host seven home games in non-conference play, highlighted by part of an in-season home-and-home with Longwood and a visit from defending MAAC champion Niagara. They open the season at the World Vision Classic at Fresno State, where they will play San Diego State in addition to the host school and Portland. Later road games include trips to Kentucky, Virginia Tech and George Mason.
Outlook: New head coach Ritchie McKay takes over a team that lost its top two scorers, but the cupboard isn’t entirely bare. Bannister is eligible and will boost the backcourt, and his presence should help Smith now that he’ll be the most proven backcourt player. McLean leads the frontcourt after a quietly solid junior season, while Porter is a capable player who should give them more and Baker has some good upside. Junior Justin Holland gives them some depth at the point, while senior Russell Monroe is the most experienced frontcourt reserve. With over 35 points lost from the departures of Larry Blair and Dwight Brewington, the Flames will be hard-pressed to be second in scoring again, so cutting down on their 15 turnovers per game and riding the frontcourt holdovers to another good rebounding margin will go a long way towards another .500 or better season.
Charleston Southern Buccaneers (8-22, 2-12 Big South)
Sr. G Chris Moore (14.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.9 apg in 16 games)
So. G Shelton Carter (6.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.1 apg)
So. F Marquise Duvall (4.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg)
So. F Brandon Macklin (4.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg)
Jr. F Giedrus Knysas (8.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Buccaneers have eight home games in non-conference play, two of which (Tulane and Auburn) will be played at the North Charleston Coliseum. They play a third game, against cross-town rival College of Charleston, at the North Charleston Coliseum. Also on tap is an in-season home-and-home with Gardner-Webb, with other notable road games being trips to play Florida and Virginia Tech. About halfway through Big South play is a tough five-game stretch that has Winthrop and High Point at home sandwiched around a three-game road swing.
Outlook: Injuries didn’t help the Buccaneers last season, as Moore missed half the season and Knysas missed time at the end of the season due to injuries. Moore will need to stay healthy even more now that Dwayne Jackson and Donnell Covington are gone, and they’ll be counting on Shelton Carter for more in his sophomore year. The guards will be pushed by younger talent, as the Bucs signed good guards in Jamarco Warren, Tovi Bailey and Omar Carter, and all three could get good minutes this season. Knysas keys the frontcourt, with Duvall and Macklin showing some promise last season. The Bucs were last in the conference in scoring last season and lost their top two scorers, so that’s a major area of concern entering this season. In light of that, it will be imperative that they not repeat last season’s defensive effort, when opponents shot 46.5 percent from the field against them.
Radford Highlanders (8-22, 3-11 Big South)
So. G Amir Johnson (11.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.7 apg, 2.0 spg)
Jr. G Kenny Thomas (9.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.1 apg, 1.0 spg)
Jr. G Martell McDuffy (9.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.2 spg)
Sr. F-C Duane Ricks (1.3 ppg, 1.5 rpg)
So. C Joey Lynch-Flohr (2.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: A mid-December date with West Virginia is the highlight of six non-conference home games. They have in-season home-and-homes with Presbyterian, Campbell and Gardner-Webb. Notable road games include the season opener at Michigan, Air Force, Georgetown and South Carolina. Three of the first four Big South games are on the road, and the one home game is against Winthrop, so it won’t be easy out of the gate.
Outlook: The Highlanders struggled down the stretch last season and continued to hit a rough patch after some success early in the decade. New head coach Brad Greenberg will try to reverse that trend, and he has a few holdovers to start with. The perimeter trio of Johnson, who looks to be the point guard for the next three seasons, along with Thomas and McDuffy, will be a good start. The latter two should reach double figures this season, and they’ll have to for this team to succeed because there’s not much firepower in the frontcourt. Ricks is one of just three seniors, so Greenberg can build for more than just this season with the core of this team. The Highlanders led the conference in turnovers last season, and with the backcourt needing to carry this team, improving on that will be essential.
For the first time in a while, Winthrop enters the season not being a clear favorite to win the conference. But they still have plenty of talent and experience returning, and their holdovers have done a lot of winning, so they’re still the team to beat until someone knocks them off. High Point should be next in line with their solid inside-outside combination of Arizona Reid and point guard Mike Jefferson, and Coastal Carolina figures to be a little further back as Cliff Ellis takes over for Buzz Peterson. UNC-Asheville and VMI are dark horses, the former with a senior backcourt to lead the way.
At the bottom of the conference are a couple of rebuilding teams, although Charleston Southern has young guards with talent that could surprise some people and finish higher. The Bucs have just three seniors and only one among their starters, so they could be a year away.