Tuesday , Nov , 09 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Big South Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Big South Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Gregg Xenakes, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: To expect there to be a huge change this year in the Big South
Conference from last year would be asking a lot. The top teams are still going
to be jockeying for position for the league tournament at the end of the
campaign, while the squads on the lower tier of the nine-team collection will
be merely speed bumps for the rest of the elite to cruise over. Last season
Birmingham-Southern and Liberty tied for the league lead with records of 12-4,
the Panthers being the only team in the league without double-digit losses
with a mark of 20-7. While that is an impressive enough record to get any team
in college basketball to take a second look at you, the fact that Birmingham-
Southern was not allowed to participate in the conference tournament took
something away from that accomplishment. This year there are no such
limitations on the Panthers, while High Point, Liberty and Winthrop will also
vie for the top spot. The Buccaneers of Charleston Southern will need a lot of
help just to be competitive. Virginia Military Institute might not be in the
same boat as the Bucs, but the Keydets sure are riding a similar wave, right
to the bottom of the standings. In between, schools like Coastal Carolina,
Radford, and UNC-Asheville could jump up and steal a game here or there that
might be beyond them, but for the most part those squads will also be standing
and watching as Birmingham-Southern , High Point, Liberty and Winthrop battle
for conference supremacy.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Birmingham-Southern

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Birmingham-Southern; 2. High Point; 3. Liberty;
4. Winthrop; 5. VMI; 6. UNC-Asheville; 7. Radford; 8. Coastal Carolina; 9
Charleston Southern.

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

BIRMINGHAM-SOUTHERN: The chains are now off the Panthers, finally able to
participate in the Big South Conference Tournament, which means the rest of
the league better watch out. Birmingham-Southern spent its first year as an
official member of NCAA Division I and the Big South Conference, following a
two-year probation period a year ago and gave the league members a taste of
what is to come. The Panthers up a record of 20-7 and tied Liberty for
the regular season title with a mark of 12-4. This season the team has three
returning starters, two of those being seniors. Guard Jakob Sigurdarson,
selected as a preseason first-team member, is perhaps the unit’s top threat
from the perimeter and, when he chooses to bring the ball inside and make
contact, opponents have to deal with the fact that he is almost 87 percent
accurate at the free-throw line. Fellow senior Augustinas Vitas may be a 6-11
product, but he’ll need to do a lot of work to make up for the loss of Grant
Davis who takes his eight and a half rebounds with him. Junior guard James
Collins may be nine inches shorter than Vitas, but last year he actually had
better rebounding numbers. Perhaps the biggest key to the success of this
program is the growth and development of senior center Shema Mbyirukira after
he tallied 11 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last year. He must put more
muscle on his 6-11, 250-pound frame if he is going to be a dominant player in
the league. Head coach Duane Reboul, now entering his 16th season with the
group, has been such a mainstay at the school that he deserves the spoils that
are going to come to him this March.

HIGH POINT: Some publications have High Point sitting at the high point of the
standings once the season is done, and for good reason. These Panthers, after
finishing 2003-4 with a record of 19-11, 10-6 in conference, bring back five
of their top six scorers from a year ago, which is why they should be in
contention for the conference crown. Being invited to play at the Great Alaska
Shootout against the likes of Oklahoma, Utah and Washington should be enough
proof that High Point is finally earning some well-deserved respect from the
rest of the college basketball world. Senior forward Danny Gathings brings a
laundry list of awards to the floor for the Panthers, not the least of which
was the 2004 Big South Player of the Year and a 2004 AP All-America honorable-
mention. The 6-6 slasher is well aware that he is being looked upon to guide
the Panthers to success, which is why his 15.8 points and eight rebounds per
game should increase this year. Before he gets too overwhelmed he has to
remember that senior guard Zione White (13.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.9 spg) is there
to rely on as well. Add senior Jerry Echenique (11.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg) to the mix
and High Point has a deadly starting group. The Panthers were tied for third
in Division I for the biggest turnaround last year, adding 12 wins to their
previous season’s total and while there’s no chance of that happening again,
there is still room for improvement from head coach Bart Lundy as he enters
his seventh season in North Carolina.

LIBERTY: For most teams losing five of your top eight scorers might be reason
to panic, but the Flames insist that they will continue to burn brightly
despite the handicap. After winning the conference tournament with an 89-44
blowout of High Point last season, and advancing to the NCAA Tournament,
Liberty saw first hand what hard work and perseverance can do for a program.
Now a sophomore Larry Blair, who became the first player in school history to
be named the Big South Rookie of the Year, was selected to the preseason All-
Conference team by the coaches. Blair averaged 13.2 ppg last season, scoring a
freshman record 437 points, and also showed that he has the touch from the
perimeter as he knocked down seven three-pointers in the conference tourney,
for which he was named to the all-tournament team. Also a scoring option for
the Flames will be David Dees who accounted for 10.5 ppg last season and has
the potential for lifting that number even higher this season. One knock on
the team might be its three-point shooting, as the squad converted just 30.8
percent overall last season. However, Dees demonstrated in conference play in
2003-04 that he has the ability to carry the Panthers by converting a stunning
47 percent of his three-pointers.

WINTHROP: For four straight seasons the Eagles were the talk of the Big South,
winning the league title between 1999-2002, but the last two years have come
up a little short by their standards. Last season the team finished in a tie
for third in the conference standings at 10-6. Head coach Greg Marshall, now
entering his seventh year with the program, has just one senior left on his
squad, while his top two scorers from a year ago have departed. Although just
a sophomore, forward/center Craig Bradshaw was given a boost this past year
when he was selected to play for the New Zealand Olympic Team. He played just
12 minutes a game for Winthrop in 2003-04 and averaged barely two points per
outing, but being given an opportunity to play against and study alongside the
top players from his country can only be looked on as a positive. With
Bradshaw possibly eating up room in the middle, the rest of the front line
should fall into place rather nicely, with a pair of 6-8 bangers like Phillip
Williams and Billy Houston clearing space in the lane for backcourt mates
Brandon Key and Torrell Martin to create and score.

VMI: A couple of years ago Jason Conley led the nation in scoring as a
freshman with the Keydets, but then bolted from the VMI program and is now at
Missouri. Last year the team hung its hopes on Radee Skipworth who led the
group in scoring and was named to the All-Big South Conference Second-Team as
a senior. This year, who knows what the team plans on doing for guidance on
the floor. One thing is for sure though, head coach Bart Bellairs is going to
do all he can to get this unit back to the NCAA Tournament, where it hasn’t
been since the 1977 campaign. Bellairs, now in his 11th season in Lexington,
has just two seniors on the roster (Tim Allmond and Sam Mielnik), but neither
is the type of player who can single-handedly turn a 6-22 team around without
significant help from the rest of the lineup. Therein lies the problem
because, without a player that is more than 6-9 in height, the Keydets are
desperate for leadership in the post, on the wing and at the top of the key
for that matter. Last year the team averaged just 57.4 ppg and allowed 69.4
ppg, a disparity that could grow even larger in 2004-05.

UNC-ASHEVILLE: The good news is the Bulldogs return all five of their starters
from a year ago and have 10 lettermen to pick and choose from when assembling
a lineup. After reaching the NCAA Tournament a year earlier, falling to Texas
in the first round, UNC-Asheville never fully reached its potential in 2003-04
because of one injury after another. Forward Bryan McCullough led the Bulldogs
in scoring last season with 10.0 ppg and should compete for all-conference
honors this time around, while forward Billy Allen played in just 16 games
last year but still averaged 6.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. At the
center spot a healthy 6-9 Joseph Barber should give the group some much needed
inside punch and presence. Three juniors will reprise their starting roles for
UNCA as 6-6 forward Oliver Holmes (8.9 points and 4.8 rebounds per game), Chad
Mohn (8.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Omar Collington (7.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg) get more
chances to show their worth against the rest of the Big South Conference.
Perhaps the most intriguing player on the roster for the Bulldogs is sophomore
guard K.J. Garland who, after being placed on the league’s All-Rookie Team,
took a spot on the all-tournament squad and is now considered a contender for
the Player of the Year Award in the Big South. Garland (9.9 ppg) is certainly
at the center of a group that can improve upon its situation this year.

RADFORD: The most recognizable name on the Radford roster is again Whit
Holcomb-Faye, while the rest of the Highlanders hide in anonymity. Holcomb-
Faye was responsible for 17.5 ppg last year, which is why he is once again
considered one of the top players in the Big South. The junior has a lot of
work ahead of him though if he and head coach Byron Samuels hope to push
Radford in the right direction after finishing 2003-4 with a record of 12-16,
just 7-9 in conference. Instead of getting a chance to work on his offensive
moves without the ball, Holcomb-Faye is now going to be the point guard for
the program, which means the success of players like Olumuyiwa Popoola and
Chris Oliver will be under his control. Unfortunately, the Highlanders will
have to play without the services of junior guard/forward Chris Goodin who was
suspended in mid July for failing to meet team academic policies. Goodin, who
led the team with 60 three-pointers last year and averaged 10.3 ppg as a
worthy second option on offense, could be reinstated once he takes care of his
academic obligations, but Samuels is not holding his breath, and neither
should the rest of the team which might be better off without the distraction.
In an effort to divert the team’s attention in that matter, Samuels went out
and signed transfer Ivan Wilson from Southwest Mississippi Community College
in late September after the junior 6-10 center averaged 8.3 points and 6.5
rebounds last year.

COASTAL CAROLINA: Putting up a record of 8-8 last season in league play, 14-15
overall, was not exactly what head coach Pete Strickland was expecting from
five senior starters. Unfortunately for him and the Chanticleer faithful, the
outlook isn’t even that bright this season, with four of the top five scorers
from a year ago having departed. The top returning scorer for the program is
senior guard Alvin Green, having produced 7.1 points and 3.2 rebounds per
game, despite being just 5-9 and 160 pounds. Green also handed out 101 assists
in 27 games, so he knows how to get his teammates involved. Senior center
Matthijs Reinders (1.7 ppg, 1.2 rpg) must be more physical on the inside,
while sophomore forward Moses Sonko (6.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg) also does some pushing
and shoving in the paint or else the Big South could lose sight of Coastal
Carolina rather quickly. Appearing in all 29 games for the team last year was
starter Clint Nagel, but he came off the bench more than any other player who
was penciled in as being in the starting rotation, which means he still has
some developing ahead of him. With more rebounds (4.3) than points (3.6) per
game, the senior has shown that he is willing to do some of the dirty work
without the glory, but the Chanticleers now need a lot of both, especially if
they insist on going with a thin rotation.

CHARLESTON SOUTHERN: What can you say about a team that won just six games
last season, dropping 19 of its last 23 games in 2003-04? Only once during
that stretch did a player have a double-digit rebounding effort for
Charleston-Southern, and that player happened to be top scorer Kurtis Rice.
The 6-5 senior forward carried the team on his back a season ago and the
burden was simply too much for just one person. Unfortunately, head coach Jim
Platt is expecting Rice to carry even more of the load this time around,
somehow exceeding his 13.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. Senior forward
Trent Drafts appeared in all but one game for the squad last season and
averaged 8.7 ppg so at the very least there is one more person to focus on at
the offensive end of the floor. Center Nathan Ball came up strong against
conference opponents, posting 8.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in 2003-04, but
playing the middle at 6-9 puts him at a disadvantage against many other
players at his position in the league. One area in which the entire team can
improve on is at the free-throw line, where the Buccaneers converted only 62.6
percent versus Big South members.