Mark Bryant, the Coordinator of New Media for the Big South Conference and writer for Big South SHOUT, is an RTC correspondent.
A Conference Upside-Down?
Here we are approaching the middle of December, each Big South team with one or two conference games under its belt, and already the plot has taken unexpected twists that could signal a changing of the guard.. The top three teams in the standings have yet to take a loss in conference play, even though none of those squads was forecast to finish in the upper half this year: VMI (2-0), Presbyterian (2-0), and Charleston Southern (1-0). At the same time, three teams with largely higher expectations have not scratched out a conference win so far: Coastal Carolina (0-1), High Point (0-2), and Winthrop (0-2).
Hello again, everyone. For those of you who might be new to the site this season, we want to introduce you to a feature that we try to run most nights during the season. We like to call this feature After the Buzzer (ATB) because it’ll be posted well after the witching hour in the East for your first perusal the next morning (make RTC your home page! you won’t be disappointed…). The format will change depending on what happened that night, but we’ll typically try to give some brief wrapups of the night’s biggest games and stories of interest with some commentary thrown in. If we’re feeling particularly frisky, we may also take a look ahead to the next night’s games. Note that we said most nights; there will inevitably be nights where the games that night were simply unwatchable, or we’re down at the Savoy because some Duke scrub hit a late three to cover the spread, or our better half threw the tv and/or computer out the window. In any case, like Olbermann and O’Reilly, we’ll be there as many nights as we can muster, annoying the hell out of you with our smug banter.
Game of the Night. There was no Game of the Night because there really is no “Opening Night,” and this really irritates us. Seriously, how stupid is the NCAA when it comes to how it starts the season? MLB, the NFL, the NBA and even NCAA football have an opening day/night with significant fanfare – it’s something that fans and the media alike can get excited about. Instead of a showcase night of several good ‘opening’ games, we get Duke vs. Presbyterian on ESPNU (was Methodist unavailable? how about Baptist?). Instead of Vitale/Bilas/Digger, we get the painfully monotonous Beth Mowins. Instead of college basketball nation all at once reaching an orgasmic climax because hoops is finally back in action, we get a game that is hidden away on the least-watched channel in the ESPN suite of programming. It’s ridiculous. We’ll say that ESPN is at least thinking the right way with its 24 hour bonanza of coverage next week (Nov. 18), but the NCAA and ESPN need to work a deal out next year so that this happens on a true “opening night.”
Other Games. The only games tonight were in the Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament in the Durham, NC, regional. The first game wasn’t televised, but Georgia Southern pulled off a mild upset (6-pt dog) in defeating CUSA’s Houston Cougars 65-63. Sleeper schmeeper. Trumaine Pearson led GSU with 19/11, as the Eagles withstood a late three attempt that was off the mark. Georgia Southern will now play host Duke, as the Devils got out to a large halftime lead against Presbyterian (24 pts) before mostly coasting in the second stanza to win 80-49. We actually saw most of this game – here are some quick thoughts.
Presbyterian is nicknamed the Blue Hose – someone needs to explain this to us.
Coach K wasn’t very happy with his team’s performance, and with good reason. The Devils committed 21 turnovers and only shot 3-11 (27%) from long range.
Kyle Singler (19/10) and Nolan Smith (15/3 stls) looked solid, if not spectacular, but what was alarmingly apparent was how Coach K’s recruiting in recent years has led to lineups in the Duke lineup that look way too much like the SEC and ACC in the mid-50s. A Duke ‘whiteout’ will not be an uncommon occurrence again this year.
Time and time again the Presbyterian offense was able dribble penetrate into the paint for decent looks at the rim. They rarely finished these forays because they were often too small and intimidated by the Duke ‘bigs,’ but this is going to be a serious problem again for the Devils this year. Incumbent center Brian Zoubek fouled out in seven minutes of play. Against. Presbyterian. The other option, freshman 6’10 F/C Miles Plumlee had 0/2 in thirteen minutes. Why can’t Coach K get big man studs anymore?
Mark Bryant, the Coordinator of New Media for the Big South conference and writer for Big South SHOUT, is an RTC correspondent.
Predicted Order of Finish:
Winthrop (19-10, 13-5)
Radford (17-12, 12-6)
Gardner-Webb (16-13, 11-7)
Liberty (16-15, 11-7)
High Point (15-14, 9- 9)
Charleston So. (13-16, 9- 9)
VMI (13-16, 8-10)
Coastal Carolina (14-16, 7-11)
UNC Asheville (11-18, 6-12)
Presbyterian (6-23, 4-14)
What You Need to Know (WYN2K). When the preseason balloting of the media and coaches produces seven teams with first-place votes (out of ten teams overall), it’s a pretty good clue that the race is wide open and/or that nobody really knows how it’s going to shake out. Why the mystery? Well, player losses may be cyclical for everyone, but the hits were hard across the board for Big South teams: a high number of star seniors, career record-holders, and all-conference representatives have departed (see: Arizona Reid, Reggie Williams, Chris Gaynor, and Jack Leasure, among many others). That turnover has left several coaches wondering what they have to work with this season—for example, Winthrop draws its somewhat traditional slot at the top, but as Head Coach Randy Peele pointed out, that’s without any Eagles on the preseason All-Conference team and with only 18 ppg returning this year! If Media Day interviews are to be taken at face value, the majority of Big South coaches believe the greatest talent pool likely belongs to Radford, so the Highlanders may make some noise. New member Gardner-Webb won’t be able to sneak up on anyone, a by-product of last year’s epic upset of UK at Rupp Arena. Liberty’s Anthony Smith has the skills to play anywhere, and he has earned preseason Player of the Year honors as he begins his senior campaign. The middle of the pack could finish in any order, with High Point, Charleston Southern, VMI and Coastal Carolina all working on their identities for 2008-09—only VMI and its trademark up-tempo offense offer a good sense of what may come this season. Between senior departures and the loss of 7-7 center Kenny George to injury, UNC Asheville will not be expected to duplicate last year’s surprising run to the top. Presbyterian is working through its transition to D1 and will have its work cut out for it just to stay off the bottom this year.
Predicted Champion.Winthrop Eagles(#14 NCAA). Last year’s top three scorers may be gone, but enough pieces are still there—including tournament experience and skilled coaching. WU has won the last four conference tournaments and the Eagles grabbed a first round NCAA win for the Big South in 2007 by toppling Notre Dame, so there are still plenty of guys in Rock Hill who know all about winning when it counts. If players like Charles Corbin and Mantoris Robinson step into the leadership void with some authority, the team will be fine—but they will be challenged by others who think there may be room at the top this year. Look for Winthrop to be touch-and-go for 20 wins, maybe coming up just short and finding a #14 seed in the works when the brackets are announced. Below are some highlights of Winthrop’s most recent Big South championship game.
Radford Highlanders. Forward/center Joey Lynch-Flohr gives RU a strong presence in the middle and the Highlanders certainly have their share of talent, but Coach Brad Greenberg will have to catch some breaks to pass Winthrop and break Radford’s poor postseason history (only Big South Tournament Championship: 1998).
Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs. All-Conference junior guard Grayson Flittner is a complete player, and GWU returns most of the team that pulled off the upset heard ‘round the nation (over UK), but the Bulldogs fell flat after that early win and there’s nothing to indicate that they will be better off this time out.
Liberty Flames. Anthony Smith is sensational, and you have to keep your eyes on a team that has an asset like that, but there are still too many unknowns for Coach Ritchie McKay in his second season at LU—look for the Flames to keep improving and to produce for McKay after this building year with its wave of freshmen.
Important/Key Games & RPI Boosters. A year ago, teams in the current Big South knocked off multiple teams in the ACC and the SEC, so where could that come from this year? There are games on the slate against the ACC, SEC, Big 10, Big East, Big 12 and other significant out-of-conference foes—plus the opponents still to be announced for the ESPN Bracketbusters games with Gardner-Webb, Liberty, and Winthrop. Here are a dozen to watch:
VMI @ Kentucky (11/14/08)
Radford @ Virginia (11/21/08)
Winthrop @ Davidson (11/21/08)
Gardner-Webb @ Oklahoma (11/22/08)
High Point @ NC State (11/22/08)
Liberty @ Virginia (11/25/08)
Gardner-Webb @ South Carolina (11/25/08)
Liberty @ Clemson (12/7/08)
UNC Asheville @ Ohio State (12/22/08)
Winthrop v. Florida (12/28/08)
Virginia Tech @ Charleston Southern (12/29/08)
Radford @ Wake Forest (12/30/08)
Honorary Big South members among majors this year? Try Virginia (3 games), South Carolina (3), Florida State (2), Clemson (2), Cincinnati (2), NC State (2), and Virginia Tech (2). Additional opponents in the RPI hunt for the Big South: Duke, UNC, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Kansas St., West Virginia, and USF, among others.
Here are a half-dozen games to watch in Conference play:
Radford @ Gardner-Webb (12/4/08 - December showdown for the challenger and the newcomer)
Winthrop @ Radford (12/6/08 – a very early barometer of the potential duel for first)
Liberty @ Winthrop (1/3/09 – gauge to see if Liberty will make a 2009 charge)
Radford @ Winthrop (2/2/09 – will it be a fight for first or a battle to stay in the race?)
VMI @ Liberty (2/24/09 – old rivalry may determine if either will be contender)
Did You Know?
the Big South Conference is marking its 25th Anniversary this season
star recruit Seth Curry (bother of Stephen) will play for Liberty this year…the son of former NBA player Dell Curry is not the only Big South newcomer with a pro pedigree—GWU adds junior transfer Roy Hinson III, son of the NBA’s Roy Hinson
VMI has led the nation in scoring for two consecutive years, only the 11th team to ever accomplish that feat (and a 3-year run has only been done twice before)
as alluded to above, the 2004-05 All-Freshman Team has departed, but its members have left their marks on the Conference record book: Reggie Williams (all-time leading scorer), Arizona Reid (all-time leading rebounder), Jack Leasure (the Big South 3-point record-holder), and Chris Gaynor (Conference career marks for assists and steals).
games against Presbyterian will count in the regular season standings, and the Blue Hose can compete for the regular season title, but PC is ineligible for any postseason play (as part of its transition to D1)
two coaches in the Big South have major conference head coaching experience: Coastal Carolina’s Cliff Ellis (Clemson, Auburn) and Liberty’s Ritchie McKay (Colorado State, Oregon State, New Mexico)…plus Radford’s Brad Greenberg has been an assistant in the NBA (Knicks, Clippers)
65 Team Era. UNC Asheville was the first to win an NCAA Tournament game, with its PiG win over Texas Southern in 2003. Winthrop has been the Big South representative for four consecutive seasons, and was the first to advance past the first round with its win over Notre Dame in 2007. In two other years (2005 and 2006), the Eagles gave #2 Tennessee (63-61) and #3 Gonzaga (74-64) all they wanted in first round matchups.
Final Thoughts. There are those outside the region who will overlook the Big South as a one-bid league without a history of deep tournament runs, but that would be short-sighted. The conference has now been around for a quarter-century; its caliber of coaching has improved and its competition for recruits has stepped up; its teams have demonstrated the ability to take down foes like Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, South Carolina, Miami (FL) and other teams from the major conferences. With this year’s conference race believed to be an open playing field, any team could get hot at the end of the year if it finds the right chemistry among its young players and then perhaps enjoy an extra turn (or two?) at the Dance. It should definitely be fun to watch unfold over the course of the season.