Mark Bryant, Coordinator of New Media for the Big South Conference and writer of Big South SHOUT, is an RTC correspondent. [ed. note: this post was written prior to the Nov. 26-28 games]
A Look Back
- V = 5: For the first time in modern era play, VMI has opened its season 5-0. While none of these victories have been great shockers or eye-openers, it remains an attention-grabbing start—the best opening run in the Big South this year. That jumpstart will be tested with a road trip to West Virginia.
- Hello, There!: The Big South has had a few surprises in store early this season: UNC Asheville won at Auburn in overtime (70-69), Winthrop defeated Wake Forest in Winston-Salem as part of the NIT Tip-Off (83-74), Presbyterian College downed Princeton (69-67), and two members have taken down Charlotte — Gardner-Webb in the opener (78-70) and Coastal Carolina in double overtime (79-75). Radford hopes that trend continues—the Highlanders have Charlotte next.
- Feasting on Home Cooking: Admittedly, the schedule-making is a little tilted at the start of the season, generally with tougher opponents on the road or at neutral sites in tournaments, as opposed to mostly (but not completely) softer opposition at home. That said, how about this: the Big South is undefeated at home so far this season (19-0) …nice start.
- Coastal Carolina (5-2 / 0-0)… Okay, so the Chanticleers opened with two giant wins over small colleges, which doesn’t tell us a whole lot, but let’s get a look at the second week. CCU had a four-game week at the Charleston Classic, dropping games to the host, College of Charleston, and to Big East power Georgetown, before bouncing back with two victories—including a 2OT thriller over Charlotte in what was the team’s fourth game in six days. The early lessons of resilience should serve the Chants well as the year progresses. And while plenty of eyes are on Chad Gray and Kierre Greenwood, junior guard Desmond Holloway asserted himself this week by averaging 20 points per game in that tough four-game stretch.
- VMI (5-0 / 0-0)… I was not going to elevate the Keydets to this spot without a little more weight behind those victories, but upon further reflection, VMI is out to the best start of anybody in the conference—AND they’ve got that running, gunning offense rolling right out of the gate. So for the moment, let’s not take anything away from the fact that VMI has done what it wants so far. Once again VMI will bid for the nation’s best scoring average–the Keydets are averaging over 90 points per game so far, and they have led all teams in scoring for each of the last four years. Through five games, VMI’s Stan Okoye and Keith Gabriel each average better than 20 points per game to help power that engine.
- UNC Asheville (2-2 / 0-0)… Coach Eddie Biedenbach may have the right combination working for him right now, as the Bulldogs have demonstrated their talents early on this season: D.J. Cunningham is among league leaders in rebounds and blocks, J.P. Primm is the Big South steals leader, and Matt Dickey is near the top in scoring. Only VMI is scoring more per game this year, and Asheville’s come-from-behind effort to force and win overtime at Auburn shows the grit that goes with the skill. Watch this team carefully.
- Winthrop (2-3 / 0-0)… Call this pick the benefit of the doubt, but coach Randy Peele’s Eagles know how to “grind it out” (Peele’s favorite phrase), and they already boast a win over an ACC team on its own floor this season. While Wake Forest may not be as well-armed this season, that’s still nothing to sneeze at, and Winthrop will do what it always does: frustrate opponents and make every game a fight to the finish.
- High Point (2-2 / 0-0)… The Panthers have had an unremarkable beginning to the year, but they also get some credit for having Preseason Player of the Year Nick Barbour, who can be a difference-maker on any night. HPU opened with two home wins against lesser teams and two road losses to more credible opponents. The good news for upcoming games: two home conference contests. The bad news: NO home games from December 5 – January 12.
- Gardner-Webb (3-2 / 0-0)… The Runnin’ Bulldogs have come out on the positive side so far under first-year coach Chris Holtmann. Like High Point, they have two home victories against small schools and two road losses—in this case, both at major programs (Florida State and Michigan). The tipping point for GWU this year is winning a game they would likely have lost a year ago: the opener at Charlotte.
- Presbyterian College (2-4 / 0-0)… So will the real PC please stand up? Is this the team that got blown out at Vanderbilt (88-47) or the one that hung with Kansas State before getting caught at the end (76-67)? The one that beat Eastern Kentucky and Princeton in close games, or the one that got handled by Bucknell and James Madison? That’s the problem here—the bottom few teams in the Big South all have questions. Unfortunately for the Blue Hose, even if they’re the Jekyll and not the Hyde here, they still won’t be able to play any postseason games as they continue their transition to Division I play.
- Liberty (2-4 / 0-0)… The Flames have the same familiar pattern: home wins they should have, and road losses that were probably expected. Liberty has shown the ability to bounce back from aggressive scheduling losses before, so let’s not drop them to the bottom just for falling to the likes of Notre Dame, Texas Tech, and South Florida.
- Radford (2-2 / 0-0)… Same early issues for the Highlanders as most of their peers: expected home wins and road losses, and that’s how this season has begun. This team will not get its due until it makes it clear that they’ve found a way to plug that (literally) big hole left behind by the departure of center Art Parakhouski. The lack of RU presence near the tops of most league leader boards right now shows that they may still be looking.
- Charleston Southern (2-3 / 0-0)… It seems painful to drop the Buccaneers to the bottom, but someone has to hold this spot. CSU has a lot of talented players and a good mix of experience (Jamarco Warren) and youth (Jeremy Sexton, Sheldon Strickland)—plus they certainly can beat anybody if the threes are falling, because this team can bomb with the best of them. All that said, the Bucs have not been able to wow anyone in the early going—consider this rank a challenge for the team to pick itself up for a run up the list.
A Look Ahead
While there are a number of games across the conference for the Thanksgiving weekend, the real deal for the upcoming weeks is the first glimpse of conference play. The way the season is structured, the Big South has two early December games as part of the schedule for most teams. Given the tilt toward home teams so far, here’s where the squads will be for those two games on the December 2nd and 4th.
- HOME: High Point, Liberty, Radford, VMI, Coastal Carolina (12/4 only)
- ROAD: Gardner-Webb, PC, Asheville, Winthrop, CSU (12/4 only)
All those games will help shape early perception of the Big South race, but one game that has me intrigued is the contrasting style in the Winthrop at VMI clash: will VMI be able to push its desired pace and continue its early season roll or will Winthrop be able to get in the way, slow things down and “grind out” another win? That’s among the early answers the December conference games will offer—should be a fun sequence of games.