2006 Big South Conference Tournament Preview
The Sports Network
By Ed Moorhouse, College Basketball Staff Writer
FACTS & STATS: Site: Quarterfinal round at campus sites; Semifinals at Winthrop Coliseum (6,100) -- Rock Hill, South Carolina; Finals at highest remaining seed. Dates: February 28th through March 4th. Television: ESPNU (Semifinals); ESPN2 (Championship). Annual: 21st. Defending Champion: Winthrop.
OUTLOOK: By now, you would think they'd be used to it. For the second straight year and the third time in five years, the Winthrop Eagles cruised to the Big South Conference regular season title. The road to the 2006 NCAA Tournament will go through Rock Hill once again and from the looks of it, the Eagles aren't about to relinquish the crown that seems to fit them so well, but they'll have to put up a fight to keep it. Winthrop has dominated the Big South over the last eight years, winning four regular season titles and four straight Big South Tournament titles from 1999-2002. It breezed through the tournament in the 1999-00 and 2000-01 seasons as the No. 2 seed. The only teams other than Winthrop to cut down the nets after the tournament were UNC- Asheville in 2002-03 and Liberty in 2003-04. The winner of this 21st rendition of the Big South Conference Tournament will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Winthrop felt a little pressure down the stretch and just edged out Coastal Carolina and Birmingham-Southern for the Big South regular season crown. The Eagles finished 20-7 overall and 13-3 in league play, but crucial wins in six of their last seven games held off a late-season surge by Coastal Carolina (18-9, 12-4), which closed out the regular season by winning 10 in a row. Winthrop wrapped up the conference title by completing a season sweep of Birmingham-Southern (19-8, 12-4) in the regular season finale. The Eagles lost both of its regular season games against Coastal Carolina. The fourth seed was awarded to Radford (16-12, 9-7), which will host No. 5 High Point (15-12, 8-8) in the opening round. Charleston Southern (12-15, 7-9), UNC-Asheville (9-18, 6-10) and Liberty (7-22, 3-13) will begin the tournament on the road. VMI (7-20, 2-14) failed to make the cut.
The Liberty Flames' reward for finishing the regular season with a poor 3-13 record within the Big South is a first-round tournament tilt against Winthrop in Rock Hill. Liberty closed out its season with back-to-back losses and setbacks in four of its final five games, however, its lone win in that stretch came when it stunned the Eagles, 78-71, in Lynchburg on February 20th. The Flames held Winthrop to 36.8 percent shooting on the night while they shot an uncharacteristic 46.3 percent from the field. Liberty, which had the lowest scoring offense in the league this season (64.2 ppg on 41.5 percent shooting) will need another effort like that to overcome Winthrop's top-rated scoring defense (61.7 ppg allowed). Liberty's leading scorer Larry Blair (22.6 ppg) had 37 points in that game.
The streaking Coastal Carolina Chanticleers host the UNC-Asheville Bulldogs at Kimbel Arena on the first day of the tournament. The two teams are facing each other in the BSC tourney for the first time since 1990. Coastal Carolina defeated UNCA twice in the regular season this year, and the Chanticleers' offense is paced by Jack Leasure's 18.3 ppg. They were the top field goal shooting team in the BSC during the regular season (.464). UNCA lost four of its final five games to close out the regular slate and it was a dismal 4-12 on the road. The Bulldogs allowed CCU to shoot over 55 percent in both regular season meetings. They had the worst field goal percentage defense in the league. Joseph Barber led the team on offense with 12.8 ppg.
Sixth-seeded Charleston Southern visits No. 3 Birmingham-Southern on day one. CSU defeated UNCA, 75-71, on the final day of the regular season and won three of its final five bouts, but it only won back-to-back games twice this year and did not have a winning streak of more than two games. The Buccaneers were swept by Birmingham-Southern in the regular season. CSU was held to 61 and 46 points, respectively, in the two losses. It averaged 69 ppg on the year and was paced by Chris Moore's 12.6 ppg. The BSC Panthers won nine games in a row between January 7th and February 15th to help lift it to a 12-4 league record. The Panthers were only 3-3 after the streak was snapped, but Big South teams be warned, this team is capable of getting hot and staying that way. BSC held opponents to 62.9 ppg, marking the second-lowest yield in the league, and quieted CSU to 40 percent shooting or less in both meetings. The BSC offense is led by four players scoring in double figures, including James Collins at a team-high 13.1 ppg.
The High Point Panthers visit the Radford Highlanders in the most intriguing first round matchup. High Point has the league's highest scoring offense at 75.4 ppg and it surpassed that total in both regular season games against Radford, but both had very different results. The Highlanders routed the Panthers, 96-76, in January, but cooled in the second meeting and lost, 76-62. The question remaining is which Radford team shows up: the one that put on an offensive clinic, or the one that couldn't find its rhythm? The Highlanders, winners of four of their last six games, shot only 42.4 percent from the field all season, but are led by the BSC's leading scorer in Whit Holcomb-Faye (22.7 ppg). High Point's Arizona Reid paces the high-flying offense with 18.1 ppg. The team is shooting at a .463 clip, and while the middle of the Panthers' season was clouded by a pair of three-game losing streaks, they were 3-2 down the stretch.
Each of the home teams should prevail in the opening round and Winthrop and Coastal Carolina seem to be on a collision course to meet in Rock Hill on March 4th. Winthrop has a huge target on its back due to its past success, but CCU could very well be representing the Big South when the NCAA Tournament comes calling. In the end, Winthrop's tournament experience and stingy defense should trump CCU's momentum.
Sports Network Predicted Champion: Winthrop