Big South men’s basketball coaches have been saying all season how even the competition is among the league’s 12 teams.
There are numbers to back up what’s been a repeat talking point in pregame and postgame interviews.
Last Saturday, the Big South ranked second out of the 33 Division I conferences in close games – conference games decided by four points or less, or overtime. By Monday a couple of blowouts during Saturday’s games had dropped the league to fourth. Still, nearly 31 percent of the results in Big South play have reached KenPom.com’s aforementioned threshold for close games.
The Mountain West Conference, with 33.3 percent of its games reaching KenPom.com’s close game status, is the most competitive conference in the country as of Tuesday. The Big West and SEC are second and third, respectively.
Lopsided Big South games have been uncommon too. Only two of the 36 played thus far have been decided by 19 points or more. That ranks 29th least among the NCAA conferences.
The Big South is the only conference in the nation where every team has lost at least twice. Of the 12 teams in the league, 10 of them currently have records of 3-3 or 4-2 in conference play. Longwood is 2-4 and Presbyterian is 0-6; those are the only two league teams with losing records.
“Why it’s the case, I’m not sure, but it’s apparent that it is,” Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said Monday afternoon. “Every game you go into, any team in our entire conference can win that game, any team in the entire conference can lose that game. I think the margin for error is really, really small.”
Winthrop’s opponent in Rock Hill, on Wednesday night, Radford, is a perfect microcosm of the Big South season so far. The Highlanders started the league schedule 3-1, but have dropped their last two games to fall back into the chasing pack. Neither team will treat the game any differently from any other, but with the league standings so jammed together, a win feels even more valuable.
Pinning down the exact cause of the league’s parity is a slippery bar of soap. As the season wears on, injuries and attrition will be one of the cardinal contributors to keeping the league standings clustered tightly. High Point was the landslide preseason pick to win the North Division but got off to a rough start, in part because star 6-foot-9 power forward Allan Chaney, an NBA prospect, was forced to retire from the game in early December due to a recurrence of a life-threatening heart condition.
Few, if any, of the teams in the Big South could absorb the loss of a lead player like Chaney, especially a talented big man.
“One little notch down, and that could be the difference,” said Kelsey. “That’s so important this time of year, trying to keep your team fresh. One injury can be a death blow to your team.”
High Point was no exception and lost its first two games in the league, part of a 4-11 start overall. But the Panthers have clawed back into the league race with three wins in their last four after coach Scott Cherry re-tooled his lineup.
Charleston Southern’s surprise loss to Longwood last Saturday strengthened the injury argument. The Bucs lost second-leading scorer Arlon Harper in the first half to a severe ankle injury and leading scorer Saah Nimley to a knee injury in the second before eventually falling by three points to Longwood. Of course the Lancers started the league schedule with four straight losses, but have since won two straight. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to track Charleston Southern’s form without its star guards.
The Bucs are also representative of another facet of Big South play that might contribute to competitive parity: the need to shoot from distance. Offensively talented post players are a luxury that few Big South teams boast outside of Virginia Military Institute (D.J. Covington), High Point (John Brown), and maybe Gardner-Webb, Presbyterian and Liberty.
Lacking reliable post offense, teams like Charleston Southern, Winthrop and Campbell have made the 3-point shot a central part of their scoring arsenals. The 3-point shot is fickle and can desert teams in key moments; Winthrop’s losses to Wofford and Gardner-Webb were perfect examples of that. Thirty-six percent of attempted field goals in the Big South are 3-pointers, the sixth-highest rate of any conference. A number of teams are living and dying by the 3 in conference play.
Additionally, home courts haven’t been as safe in Big South play as in other leagues. The home team wins in 71.4 percent of SEC and Ivy League home games, and in 79.5 percent of Big Sky Conference games, the highest percentage of the 33 leagues. Only 55.6 percent of Big South teams win conference games at home, 23rd most.
What does it mean? March will be mad, just like last season when fifth-seeded Liberty shocked the league to win the Big South’s NCAA Tournament berth.
It also means that Big South players and coaches have to dial in every Wednesday and Saturday, a draining facet of the conference basketball grind. That’s why Kelsey and his staff reduce the season into its lowest fractions, focusing on just the next game, and breaking that 40-minute game into what he calls “4-minute wars.” It makes what can be an overwhelming prospect - maintaining consistency over the course of a six-month season - more digestible for college-aged young men.
“I don’t think it’s even just 19-year-olds. I think for 38-year-olds with no hair it helps,” Kelsey said with a grin. “The season is a lifetime. There’s so many things that happen and that’s part of the dynamic of sports, it’s a microcosm of life. That’s the cool thing about what we get to do; it’s preparing kids for the kinds of challenges and ups and downs they’re going to face in life.”
From that viewpoint, few conferences in America this season seem to be preparing kids as well as the Big South.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T