RTC Summer Updates: Big South ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on August 11th, 2011
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our latest update comes courtesy of our Big South correspondent, Mark Bryant.
- New Kids On The Block: The most obvious changes from last hoops season to the one upcoming are the new faces in the Big South Conference. First and foremost, there’s a whole new team to account for this year, as the Campbell Fighting Camels have returned. CU was a founding member of the Big South in 1983, but left in 1994. Now the boys from Buies Creek are back where they belong, nestled in among more geographic rivalries and familiar old foes. And while it’s not as dramatic as a whole new team, plenty of eyes will be on the new head man at Radford, where Mike Jones will be in charge of a rebuilding process for the Highlanders.
- Old Faces, New Places: And while every conference sees plenty of shuffling among assistants from year to year, the Big South had a couple notable arrivals–particularly for those who have followed SEC hoops in the past. Charleston Southern added former South Carolina standout B.J. McKie to the coaching staff. McKie joins coach Barclay Radebaugh, who was on the USC bench in BJ’s days as a guard to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, up the beach from Charleston, Coastal Carolina and head coach Cliff Ellis have added their own familiar name in Mamadou N’Diaye, who played at Auburn for Ellis before launching his NBA career.
- Changes of Scenery: Big South basketball locales will take on different looks both at home and away this year, as UNC Asheville and Coastal Carolina are putting the finishing touches on entirely new facilities, while several schools are hitting the road less traveled and going abroad. Summer trips will take Presbyterian College to Italy, Gardner-Webb to the Bahamas, and Liberty to Belgium and France, plus once the season begins, we will see Winthrop head off to the Virgin Islands.
- UNC Asheville — Coming off of a nice showing in the NCAA Tournament, winning its “First Four” matchup before falling to Pitt, UNC Asheville will likely be the favorite in the eyes of many. Certainly the return of standouts Matt Dickey (particularly with late-season heroics) and J.P. Primm would encourage anyone, even in the face of losing star John Williams… but before you crown the Bulldogs, note that 6’11″ center D.J. Cunningham will be forced to miss the season after knee surgery, something that throws a wrench in head coach Eddie Biedenbach‘s plans, and may force more use of new arrival seven-footer Jaleel Roberts.
- Coastal Carolina — This team in particular will be tough to peg, but we’ll give them plenty of credit for now. Coastal has blasted through the last two regular seasons before faltering at the end, and last year’s stumble at the finish concluded with a rough night at Alabama in the NIT. Nonetheless, this team is the first in Big South history with 25 or more wins in consecutive seasons, and Cliff Ellis keeps the Chanticleers hungry. They lose Chad Gray, so the heart of this team will likely be with Kierre Greenwood (who ended last year with a knee injury) and fan favorite Anthony Raffa, with questions around what role Desmond Holloway could play after ending last year on a suspension. Among the newcomers to watch, Ellis says juco transfer Charles Ashford from Vincennes (Indiana) University will provide “immediate impact” for the squad.
- High Point — The Panthers seem to make each year a roller coaster ride, but we have to think there will be more ups than downs for Coach Scott Cherry this season, now that it’s the senior year for star guards Nick Barbour and Shay Shine. Barbour could not deliver on high expectations as Preseason Player of the Year last time around, while Shine was most notable as a college “Dunk of the Year” candidate, but if these two can get their respective games in gear at the same time, HPU could make things interesting.
- Liberty – Head coach Dale Layer will be glad his group has the August European swing to get in tune together, because he lost last year’s leading scorer, Evan Gordon, who is transferring out of Lynchburg (echoes of LU losing Seth Curry in the recent past). If that were not the case, the Flames would be higher on the list, but even with Gordon out, the battery that keeps this team energized is senior leader Jesse Sanders, who will welcome some help from new arrivals junior Tavares Speaks and Polish-born Tomasz Gielo.
- Winthrop — Winthrop usually gets the benefit of the doubt in the rankings after being a dominant team for years, but even head coach Randy Peele described his team’s play last season as “mediocre” and “unacceptable.” If the Eagles can find a way to click this time around, they seem to have the pieces to improve on that showing. They have their leading scorer back in Robbie Dreher, along with a pair of three-year starters in Andre Jones and point guard Reggie Middleton.
- Charleston Southern — With Jamarco Warren gone, the focus for the Bucs will start with a very capable trio in senior forward Kelvin Martin, junior guard Jeremy Sexton, and sophomore Sheldon Strickland. Slide in a number of newcomers coach Radebaugh is very high on (Nigerian Paul Gombwer–”a ferocious rebounder” and Georgia 5A All-State guard Saah Nimley, among others), and you have a CSU team that could turn a few heads once they come together.
- Gardner-Webb — Give coach Chris Holtmann credit, because he changed the direction for the Runnin’ Bulldogs and got things going the right way in his first year. Look for more improvements given some early practice time (thanks to the aforementioned Bahamas trip). The backcourt should be sound, with senior Laron Buggs to be joined by Wofford transfer junior Jason Dawson. Holtmann has several newcomers on the squad, but is not bringing in a lot of height in that crowd, outside of 6’8″ Corey Hensley, that is.
- VMI — Oh, the Keydets…everybody loves to watch the frenzied pace of their games for the sheer entertainment value, but unfortunately for VMI, even when they lead the nation in scoring (which they typically have done in the last several years), they find a way to give up even more on any given night. Coach Duggar Baucom has gotten an extension to continue leading the Keydets, and he has certainly figured out a way to offset the restrictions of the military academy life with the wild run-and-gun style of hoops there. He has a great core (and corps) back from last season, with Rodney Glasgow, Stan Okoye, D.J. Covington, and Keith Gabriel all returning.
- Presbyterian College — Yes, this was to be PC’s year…seniors to lean on, finally a shot at the title, etc. Unfortunately, the wheels of progress are slow at times–a red-tape hold-up has delayed full Division I status for the Blue Hose for yet another year, making this season a spoiler role at best for the PC players who wanted to shock the conference. Senior Al’Lonzo Coleman and junior Khalid Mutakabbir will lead the way.
- Campbell — It will probably be a year of adjustment for Campbell and head coach Robbie Laing. A large class of signees will help shape the future for CU, and Laing calls the 2011 crop “our attempt to return to a faster style of play, extending the floor defensively through multiple presses and shooting the three-ball.” New players, new conference, adjusted style… sounds like a transition year in Buies Creek.
- Radford — Mike Jones takes the helm for a team that not so long ago represented the Big South in the NCAA Tournament, but the two seasons since that glorious turn have been quite the crash back to earth–culminating in the exit of former coach Brad Greenberg. The Highlanders should represent a model of rebuilding this season, with a roster dotted with international players and plenty of youth. Last year was tough for RU, and it will take time to change the team’s fortunes.
The 2011-12 season should offer better than a repeat of the pattern from the last two seasons, which will likely be good news even to CCU fans, because even though they dominated two regular season titles, neither year ended with a tourney title or NCAA appearance, something the teal-clad crowd in Conway is salivating for more and more. Asheville will wear the banner of favorite, but expect a duel in the standings between Asheville and Coastal, along with whichever third party steps up to have its say in the race. That may be High Point or Liberty, but given that most of the teams have plenty of pros and cons to point to, a few others could easily drop a few surprises along the way. The tourney format will have a couple subtle but potentially important shifts, with ten participating teams this year (all but PC). That week will see the bottom four teams in Monday “play-in” games to make a bracket of eight. The quarterfinals and semifinals will be at the floor of the top seed on Wednesday and Thursday, with the championship to be at the higher remaining seed on that Saturday.
Last year, all the early buzz belonged to Coastal Carolina, but shifted Asheville‘s way later in the campaign. As noted above, those teams should make their share of noise again, but we feel the need to point back to the 1-2 punch of senior guard play at High Point with Nick Barbour and Shay Shine. If those two live up to their potential, while working together and displaying the maturity their games should possess by now, they could be fun for fans and scary for opponents. If not, well, it’s back on the roller coaster for the Panthers and their followers.