Monday , Nov , 06 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Big South Conference

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) –
OUTLOOK: In September of 2000 it was announced that Birmingham-Southern College
was being added to the Big South membership in the fall of 2003 and now just
three years later the school has decided to bail out of Division I and will be
going without a men’s basketball team for the 2006-07 campaign. That’s the
biggest change for the Big South Conference heading into the new season. With
the Panthers on the way out, the rest of the league can breath a sigh of relief
after the team finished in a tie for second in the conference with a mark of
12-4 a year ago. One team that probably doesn’t care either way about
Birmingham-Southern’s decision is Winthrop, the top squad in the conference
last season after beating the Panthers twice in as many tries and holding the
up-and-coming program to a mere 43 points in each outing. Heading into this
season, the Eagles were picked as the team to beat in the conference according
to coaches and media for the second straight year. Having the top preseason
player in the league certainly doesn’t hurt Winthrop either. But the Eagles
have to keep an eye on the likes of Coastal Carolina as well as High Point
because just a few breaks here or there and any one of the three programs could
be hoisting the crown at the end of the season and heading to the NCAA
Tournament. Schools like Charleston Southern, Liberty and UNC Asheville will
need a lot more help if they expect to play in the postseason and represent the
Big South on a national stage, but it is still not out of the realm of
possibility. That leaves Radford and VMI, the former having lost the top scorer
in the conference from a year ago in Whit Holcomb-Faye who produced 23.1 ppg as
one of only two players to put up more than 20 points per outing. TO make
matters worse, Radford head coach Byron Samuels has announced that this will be
his last season with the team. The league’s top rebounder is back for another
go around with Radford, but that alone will not be enough to bring the squad to
glory. As for the Keydets, they return their top-two scorers from a year ago,
but they are still getting themselves familiar with head coach Duggar Baucom
who is in just his second year with VMI and his fourth overall as a head man in
college basketball.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION:

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

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

WINTHROP: Last season the Eagles put up a 23-8 record and were 13-3 in league
play to take first place, but after all the pomp and circumstance of having
such an outstanding record on both fronts, the program bowed in the first round
of the NCAA Tournament to Tennessee (63-61). But that close call versus the
Vols proved that Winthrop had to goods to make a dent in the postseason and
possibly pick up its first win the NCAA Tournament in the near future. This
time around the program has five of it’s top six scorers from a year ago, with
Torrell Martin heading the list after putting up 13.8 ppg. As far as the rest
of the league is concerned, Martin is considered the top player in the Big
South in being named the Preseason Player of the Year. Last year he was named
the MVP of the conference tournament for the second straight time as one of the
deadliest outside shooters (.406 from three-point range) in the conference.
Along side Martin, who has every intention of finishing his career with an NCAA
Tourney victory, is fellow All-Big South performer Craig Bradshaw at the center
spot. Bradshaw is the other double-digit scorer left over from 2005-06 (12.8
ppg) and was also the team’s top option on the glass with six rebounds per
game. Head coach Gregg Marshall, now in his ninth season with the Eagles, knows
what he has in Martin and Bradshaw and now just needs junior guard Chris Gaynor
to continue his excellent play-making (139 assists) but also up his scoring
from 6.9 ppg. One aspect of the team’s play that Marshall, a three-time Big
South Coach of the Year, doesn’t need to be concerned with is their defense,
after leading the league in scoring defense in each of the coach’s first eight
seasons.

COASTAL CAROLINA: This is the one team that has a realistic chance of taking
down Winthrop this year, after being the only team in 2005-06 to defeat the
Eagles twice. The Chanticleers tied for second in the league standings with a
record of 12-4 in 2005-06 and were 20-10 overall thanks to the work of Jack
Leasure who was named and Honorable Mention All-American by the AP a year ago
after finishing second in the nation in three-point baskets per game with 4.17.
Leasure, who was also named the Big South Player of the Year, connected on a
new league-record 125 three-point baskets through 30 games for head coach Buzz
Peterson who was in his first year with the program after coming over from
Tennessee. In addition to his scoring prowess (17.8 ppg) Leasure also led
Coastal Carolina in both assists (122) and steals (49) showing that he is far
from being one-dimensional. Senior forward Moses Sonko was also a starter in
all 30 games a year ago and brings back his 11.7 ppg and combines with Joseph
Harris (5.4 ppg) to form one of the top rebounding duos in the Big South again
this year. Accounting for 22 of the team’s 64 blocked shots on the campaign,
Harris needs more help on the inside at the defensive end of the floor if the
Chanticleers are going to put their stamp on this season.

HIGH POINT: The Panthers haven’t been at the Division I level for that long,
but this is definitely the best chance the team has of making it to the
postseason since competing against Salem-Teikyo in the Division II National
Tournament in 1997. Under the direction of Bart Lundy, who is entering his
fourth year with the program, High Point has been the top scoring team in the
Big South the last two years, which led to a 16-13 record in 2005-06. By
splitting 16 conference games a year ago the Panthers finished fifth in the
standings, but that should change this time around with junior forward Arizona
Reid ready to light up the scoreboard once again. Coming off a campaign in
which he posted 18.3 ppg and was a member of the Big South All-Conference First
Team, Reid was a terror on the inside as he brought down a team-best 8.9
rebounds per game to place second in the conference. Now a Preseason All-Big
South selection, Reid will need some of his teammates to step up and take the
pressure off of him so he doesn’t feel the need to do everything himself.
Unfortunately, Mike Jefferson is the next best scorer coming back, having put
up 8.1 ppg, after that it drops down to Landon Quick (5.2 ppg) who also led the
group in assists with 106. The other area in which the team might be lacking
this year is under the basket at the defensive end now that Defensive Player of
the Year Issa Konare has departed following a year in which he accounted for 70
of the squad’s 111 blocked shots.

LIBERTY: In his fourth year with the Flames, head coach Randy Dunton watched
the spark go out of the Liberty program as the team finished a mere 7-23 on
the season. If that were not bad enough, the Flames also won just three of
their 13 conference tests, leaving them second to the bottom in the standings.
As bad as 2005-06 may have been for the school, it was a stepping stone to what
should be a better record this season, especially with the top three scorers
ready to come back and prove that their record was a one-time aberration.
Senior guard Larry Blair was a scoring machine for the Flames last season,
finishing second in the Big South with 22.6 ppg. Shooting 35.6 percent from
three-point range, Blair did not limit his play to the perimeter and managed to
record close to five rebounds per game while also leading the squad in assists
(80) and steals (61). Although he is not eligible to play until the team takes
on St. Francis (Pa) on December 16, Providence transfer Dwight Brewington
should have a huge impact on how Blair approaches the game at the offensive end
of the floor. Brewington, who is partially deaf in both ears, notched 13.1 ppg
as a sophomore for the Friars two years ago against much stiffer competition. A
starter in 20-of-30 games a year ago, Anthony Smith had been the next-best
scoring option for the Flames even though he was shooting a miserable 37.9
percent from the field and just 28.6 percent from three-point range. After a
month it will be time for Smith to move over and give Brewington more attempts
at the basket.

UNC-ASHEVILLE: In his 10th season in charge of the Bulldogs, head coach Eddie
Biedenbach had one of his toughest efforts, trying to get the group to put a
rough 9-19 campaign behind them. With only four wins in 17 tries on the road,
UNC-Asheville had certainly seen better days, but that chances of similar
results this season are looking more and more likely. A look at the roster
shows the top returning scorer as Brett Warner with his 7.3 ppg, but he
appeared in only six games for the squad and missed the final 22 contests due
to suspension. With only a single senior on the roster, the Bulldogs cannot
afford to go through another season without Warner available. As the most
experienced performer from a year ago, Joey Harrell was responsible for 7.0 ppg
and was one of the top rebounders with 5.2 per outing. As a team, UNC-Asheville
was not only last in the conference in three-point shooting (.316) but also
last in turnover margin with close to four more miscues than opponents in
2005-06. While there are some winnable games on the early schedule, the
Bulldogs will see just how much bite they have when they play seven of eight on
the road against the likes of Charlotte, North Carolina, South Carolina and
Louisville leading up to the end of the calendar year.

CHARLESTON SOUTHERN: Up until the end of January of last season, the Buccaneers
managed to win back-to-back games just twice, but in the final five weeks of
the campaign head coach Barclay Radebaugh managed to swing the momentum in the
opposite direction, with the team winning six of the last 10 contests. Now in
his second year with the squad, Radebaugh has to think that better things are
on the horizon, even if the media and other coaches don’t believe it. Getting
junior guard Chris Moore to produce at a high level again will be crucial,
especially since he is the only returning player who put up double-digit
scoring in 2005-06 with his 13.0 ppg. Moore, while leading the unit in steals
with 40, even though he started only 17-of-29 games, was the team’s best option
from three-point range at 43.5 percent. Radebaugh, who is in just his third
year as a head coach in the college ranks, will have a backcourt-dominated
program this year with Donnell Convington and Dwayne Jackson after the pairing
combined to average close to 20 ppg as juniors last year. Senior forward Vernon
Huger, who led the group with 5.9 rpg but had just 5.3 ppg, has to contribute
more at the offensive end of the floor for a team that didn’t have single
player start all 29 games. More continuity and consistent play from regulars
should raise the program from being last in the Big South in field goal
defense, but that all depends on how well the coach gets his squad to buy into
the scheme.

VMI: Head coach Duggar Baucom knew he was stepping into a tough situation at
VMI last year, but for him and the Keydets to finish just 7-20 and 2-14 in the
Big South had to be hard to take. What would make Baucom and company feel
better this year would be for his top four scorers from a year ago to come back
and exceed expectations. Although just a sophomore in 2005-06, forward Reggie
Williams made it on the All-Big South Second Team by leading the team in
scoring (19.0 ppg) and placing second in both rebounding (7.0 rpg) and assists
(69) over the course of 27 games. Matt Murrer, a senior forward from Richmond,
was a big reason why the Keydets were tops in the league in rebounding with
more than 37 rpg, thanks to his 7.9 rpg. Shooting an impressive 65 percent from
the field, en route to 12.7 ppg, Murrer was certainly a presence in the paint
at the offensive end, although he failed to make much of an impact at the other
end. Twins Travis and Chavis Holmes, although just sophomores themselves, must
provide the team with some outside scoring punch that will force opposing
defenses to stretch out beyond the key and, in turn, give VMI some better looks
at the basket in close.

RADFORD: While the Highlanders were blown out in the 2005-06 season opener
against Virginia Tech by 30 points, the squad bounced back to tackle Western
Carolina, Bowling Green and East Tennessee State all in a row and all by at
least double digits. However, the Byron Samuels-led program had some issues
against the rest of the Big South and came away with a 9-7 mark in league
action and was 16-13 overall. Both of those records were a personal best for
Samuels at Radford in his first four years, but the expectations were so much
more than that, perhaps prompting Samuels’ departure at the end of this season.
Second in the conference in scoring last year (73.6 ppg), that production will
drop significantly in 2006-07 with Holcomb-Faye now gone and Chris Oliver the
lone double-digit scorer returning. A senior forward, Oliver was named a
Second-Team All-Big South member thanks to his 17.4 ppg and league-leading 10
rpg. Junior center Duane Ricks wasn’t much of an offensive threat for the
Highlanders a year ago with just four points per game, but he did provide a
substantial presence in the paint at the defensive end with his team-high 42
blocked shots. However, watching Ricks shoot only 49.4 percent from the field
and a miserable 54.8 percent at the free-throw line, was tough to take and
cannot be tolerated for another year.