Big South Conference Preview
The Big South Conference race was a two-team affair all season long last year – no one else was much of a factor down the stretch. UNC-Asheville got off to a hot start, going 7-0 to begin the conference season, but an ensuing four-game losing streak opened the door. Familiar face Winthrop stepped into that void, taking a one-game lead into the season finale. However, Asheville went into Rock Hill and knocked off the Eagles to complete a season sweep and win the tie-breaker for the regular-season title. In the conference tournament, though, Winthrop’s experience showed, as the Eagles got revenge on Asheville, defeating them in the title game. They could not repeat their NCAA Tournament success of two years ago, losing to Washington State in the first-round. With Winthrop losing many of its top players, will the Big South see a changing of the guard at the top?
Favorites: Radford finished just 5-9 in the conference last season, but the Highlanders return all five starters from that team. They have an outstanding perimeter group, led by all-conference guards Amir Johnson and Martell McDuffy, as well as Kenny Thomas. Up front, Joey Lynch-Flohr is one of the better forwards in the Big South. Gardner-Webb is going to be a factor in its first season after leaving the Atlantic Sun. The Bulldogs own an outstanding backcourt in Grayson Flittner and Aaron Linn, two of the best guards in the league. Nate Blank is poised to have a huge season in the frontcourt. Winthrop is always a player in the title race, despite the fact that simply not a lot returns for the Eagles. Byron Faison could be the team’s go-to-scorer on the perimeter, while forwards Mantoris Robinson and Charles Corbin need to become more aggressive in the frontcourt. Wake Forest transfer Cameron Stanley will make an immediate impact.
Contenders: Liberty returns the preseason Big South Player of the Year in Anthony Smith, and also brings in the best recruiting class in the history of the conference. Seth Curry, Stephen’s brother and Dell’s son, will start in the backcourt along with fellow frosh Brolin Floyd. Kyle Ohman and Jeremy Anderson return up front. High Point loses two-time Player of the Year Arizona Reid, but could be a factor in the league race. Leading the way is guard Eugene Harris, an all-conference candidate who can really shoot. Cruz Daniels and David Campbell also return as starters in the frontcourt.
Sleepers: VMI is always fun to watch, but the Keydets need to replace Reggie Williams, the nation’s leading scorer for two seasons. Chavis and Travis Holmes, two big-time scorers on the wing, will pick up the slack. Guards Austin Kenon and Adam Lonon will also start, with Willie Bell anchoring the frontcourt. Coastal Carolina played better late in the season, and will win some tough games this year. Joseph Harris and Anthony Breeze could be a dynamite frontcourt duo, while Logan Johnson is a solid perimeter player. Mario Sisinni and Steven Sexton return as well. Charleston Southern has one of the best duos in the entire Big South in forward Omar Carter, an all-conference performer, and guard Jamarco Warren, who can play both backcourt spots. 6-10 Giedrius Knysas and Tovi Bailey will also start for the Buccaneers.
Rounding out the Pack: UNC-Asheville could go from sharing first-place to the cellar after losing four starters, including Kenny George, whose career is likely over after getting part of his foot amputated. The only starter coming back is Reid Augst, although several role players return, including Donovan Jones, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Presbyterian is not eligible for the conference tournament until 2011-2012, as the Blue Hose will be playing their first season in the Big South after being an Independent last season. They are led by forwards Al’Lonzo Coleman and Bryan Bostic.
Prediction: This could be the year that Winthrop’s reign atop the Big South comes to an end. The Eagles simply lost too much from last season, and the talent level across the entire conference has increased dramatically. Radford has a tremendous perimeter group and a solid forward in Joey Lynch-Flohr; Gardner-Webb is very solid; and Liberty has plenty of quality performers. Of course, you can’t count out Winthrop because of the way it plays defense and knows how to win. However, I’m going to go with Radford to get the automatic bid and get to the NCAA Tournament. The Highlanders’ inside-outside balance will be the key to overcoming Winthrop.
Player of the Year: Anthony Smith, G, Liberty
G- Anthony Smith, Liberty
G- Grayson Flittner, Gardner-Webb
G- Amir Johnson, Radford
G- Chavis Holmes, VMI
F- Omar Carter, Charleston Southern
G- Eugene Harris, High Point
G- Martell McDuffy, Radford
G- Aaron Linn, Gardner-Webb
G- Travis Holmes, VMI
F- Joey Lynch-Flohr, Radford