Mark Bryant, the Coordinator of New Media for the Big South Conference and writer of Big South SHOUT, is an RTC correspondent.
Predicted Order of Finish:
UNC Asheville (12-6)
High Point (9-9)
Coastal Carolina (7-11)
Charleston Southern (6-12)
Presbyterian College (3-15)
Jamarco Warren (G), Jr., Charleston Southern
Grayson Flittner (G), Sr., Gardner-Webb
Joseph Harris (F), R-Sr., Coastal Carolina
Joey Lynch-Flohr (F), Sr., Radford
Art Parakhouski (C), Sr., Radford
6th Man. Nick Barbour (G), Soph, High Point
Impact Newcomer. Lazar Trifunovic (F), Jr., Radford (transfer from Binghamton)
What You Need to Know.Ask any of the Big South coaches right now who’s on top and the answer you’ll get is Radford. The Highlanders are the preseason favorite for the first time in a decade with good reason: the defending conference champs (regular season and tournament winners) still have their skilled twin towers combination of 6-8 Joey Lynch-Flohr and 6-11 Art Parakhouski. RU center and dominant force Parakhouski in particular has the size, strength, and game needed to dominate the opposition (for perspective, last year he averaged a double-double against Big East and ACC competition), playing his way into Player of the Year honors last season and the Preseason POY award for this year. Beyond Radford, the race should be very tight among a few schools with questions to answer: Asheville — can the Bulldogs win away from the Justice Center this year (11-3 home, 4-13 on the road a year ago); Winthrop — can the Eagles return to their once-familiar position of dominance in the Big South with 2009 Defensive Player of the Year Mantoris Robinson now as the unquestioned team leader; and Gardner-Webb — can the Runnin’ Bulldogs and playmaker Grayson Flittner iron out some consistency so that they turn their big wins into streaks? Meanwhile, two recent contenders will definitely be rebuilding: VMI — where Coach Duggar Baucom no longer has the Holmes twins to rely on in his rapid-fire scheme; and Liberty –where star player Seth Curry and Coach Ritchie McKay both departed Lynchburg, leaving new Coach Dale Layer to get the Flames burning again. High Point should fit in around where VMI and Liberty fall in the standings, with Coastal Carolina in that mix as well, while Charleston Southern is likely to trail that group despite the sharpshooting of Jamarco Warren. Presbyterian College remains ineligible for a championship as the transition to D1 continues, but PC doesn’t have the tools to contend yet in any case, so look for the Blue Hose at the bottom of the standings.
Predicted Champion. Radford Highlanders (NCAA Seed: #15). Last year RU passed early front-runner VMI in the regular season and then knocked the Keydets out in the Big South Championship. The reward for the Highlanders? A #16 seed and a lethal draw against eventual National Champion North Carolina (an experience Parakhouski describes as “short, but amazing”). This season Radford should draw a little more attention and could easily play into a #15 spot, which opens the possibility of getting a potentially favorable match-up down low given the size RU can bring to the post. With that, it’s not out of line to think the Big South could see a first round win for the first time since Winthrop’s memorable upset of Notre Dame in 2007.
Ok. It’s not that Curry (Stephen). It’s actually his little brother Seth Curry, a freshman at Liberty, who has decided to transfer after bowing out in the CollegeInsider.com tournament to James Madison. After being lightly recruited out of high school (when will scouts and college coaches learn), Curry led all freshman in scoring at 20.2 PPG. Curry has not listed any of his potential choices and college coaches are not allowed to comment on potential transfers so at the very least Seth will keep college basketball message boards abuzz for the next couple of weeks.
Obviously, Liberty’s coach Ritchie McKay is a little disappointed, but he seems to be handling it in stride (did you hear that Randy Shannon?). Here is Curry’s prepared statement:
Today I am announcing that I will not be returning to Liberty for my sophomore year. This is a difficult decision that I have reached after close consultation with my family and others close to me, and it is based on my desire to develop as an athlete to the fullest of my potential and take advantage of new opportunities that may be available to me in a higher rated conference.
My freshman year at Liberty has been an incredible experience. It has been a time of learning, growth and discovery of my potential as a person, a student and an athlete. For that I am deeply indebted to all of those who have influenced and supported me here – Coach McKay and his staff, my great teammates, my teachers, and my friends.
You have given me memories that will last a lifetime, and for that I cannot find words to express my gratitude.
Any guesses on where he is headed? There are a couple interesting potential legacy destinations: Davidson (replace his brother) or Virginia Tech (his father’s alma mater–helping Seth Greenberg save some face and get in the NCAA tournament, but that bridge may have been burned). Or will Seth go to another big-name program? There are plenty of other programs that could use a guy who averaged over 20 PPG as a freshman and averaged 25 PPG on 55% FG in 2 games against ACC opponents (Clemson and Virginia) this year. I would think he would want to stay relatively close to home (Charlotte area) and be in a starring role at a place where he could take over in a year so I would think that would exclude a place like UNC or Duke, but I could see him at Wake Forest or NC State (potentially saving Sidney Lowe‘s job) particularly since all of their current stars leaving by then. I don’t think a move west will be as likely, but who knows if a BCS coach promises him an offense that will showcase his skills. . .
“They only gave us one,“ McKay said. “He wanted to play in a more high profile league. He said it was nothing against us. I genuinely believe that. Seth and I have a great relationship and I love the kid. He enjoyed playing for us and being a part of our program. I think he was frustrated by the constant schemes to stop him and felt like if he was playing in a conference that starts with an ‘A’ and ends with a ‘C,‘ that one of those schools would have some other guys around him that he wouldn’t bear such a brunt of the scoring load. Seth is a tremendously competitive kid, not afraid of any challenge. I don’t fault him. I want what’s best for Seth. It was tough for us. Kind of a one and done deal. But that’s the risk you take when you recruit a really good player.“
Even though McKay doesn’t spell it out for us (he left a letter out), his statement narrows it down to 12 teams:
Boston College: Replaces Tyrese Rice in a major media market, but one where there isn’t a major emphasis on college basketball so he wouldn’t have near as much pressure. He would still get to play with Joe Trapani and Rakim Sanders.
Clemson: Would replace K.C. Rivers and be relatively close to home. Oliver Purnell‘s program is right around the level where they are relevant nationally, but by no means a powerhouse (at least after conference play starts).
Duke: Nope. Too much talent here to run an offense around a guy who isn’t a sure-fire top 5 pick.
FSU: Had a very good team this year and Leonard Hamilton did use a one-man show this year in Toney Douglas, but it still seems like an outside shot.
Georgia Tech: Interesting choice, but I’m not sure if they Curry family wants Seth to have to go to a place where he would have to revive a program that has fallen on hard times since Jarrett Jack left.
Maryland: The Terrapin fans and Gary Williams would love to land Curry who would take over Grievis Vasquez‘s role(without all the yapping).
Miami: Living in Coral Gables with South Beach and taking over Jack McClinton‘s role sounds enticing, but this was a 2-man team last year and both of those guys (Dwayne Collins is a junior) will be gone by the time Curry is able to play there.
NC State: This would be fairly close to home and at a big-name program albeit one that has fallen a few notches since they let Herb Sendek go. This would have to be a huge addition for a program that has fallen to the #4 program in the state (possibly lower) and could save Lowe’s job.
UNC: See Duke.
Virginia: No coach = No shot.
Virginia Tech: See above. The logical choice if Greenberg hadn’t ignored Dell’s two kids (Stephen and Seth–the first time around).
Wake Forest: I could see this as a solid location. Small school similar to Liberty and Davidson, but one with a passionate fan base. He could also have some support depending on how long the current group stays. I am assuming that Jeff Teague would be gone by then or at worst (for Seth’s FG attempts) would only be there one more year. This is a solid darkhorse.
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.