The Big South Conference men’s basketball regular season is necessary, but its importance pales in comparison to the conference tournament that will be held the next four days in Asheville, N.C.
In a league that gets one NCAA Tournament bid every year, the tournament is almost always the only way into the Big Dance for the Big South’s 10 teams. The door is narrow and eight teams will begin squeezing their way through it Thursday when four games are played at Kimmel Arena.
Can Winthrop repeat as the conference champs? Can UNC Asheville hold serve on its home deck? Will an upstart surprise everyone? Maybe the information below can give you some answers prior to the actual games, which begin on Thursday.
Can Winthrop win it all?
Winthrop has played in four straight Big South tournament finals, so it would be ill-advised to think the Eagles can’t make it to Sunday.
The Eagles have to show up on defense three games in a row. That’s not impossible; Winthrop was a defensive machine during its streak of 11 wins in 12 games prior to last week. But losses to Charleston Southern and Asheville indicated a dual lapse in fire and focus on the guarding end of the court.
“You tip our cap to our opponents because they kicked our tail,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “But sometimes when that happens it can end up being a positive thing for your team because I thought we’ve had two of the best practices we’ve had in a long time. I think our guys have done a great job preparing the last six weeks but there was a little different sense of urgency coming off those two losses.”
Another factor in those two losses that can’t continue in the conference tournament, Big South player of the year Xavier Cooks didn’t impact either game as much as he wanted. His stats weren’t terrible, outside of six turnovers against Charleston Southern, but there was a feeling that he was absent in the big moments.
“Any team in any league anywhere in the world, it’s important for your best players to play well,” Kelsey said. “I think Xav knows he probably hasn’t played to his normal standard the last two games, but you know what? Neither have we. Nobody has. He’s responded in a phenomenal way. My sense is he’ll have a great game on Thursday.”
Can the Big South tournament return to Winthrop, even though the Eagles aren’t the top seed?
One costly side effect of Winthrop’s Senior Day loss to Charleston Southern was the Eagles slipped to the No. 3 seed. If the No. 1 seed doesn’t advance to the finals, the championship game moves to the site of the highest remaining seed, No. 2 Radford (presuming the Highlanders are still around). Obviously, it would have helped the Eagles’ chances of returning to Winthrop Coliseum by being No. 2, instead of 3.
The No. 3 seed has won the Big South tournament four times out of 32 editions. And there have been just four tournaments where neither of the top two seeds made the finals:
▪ 1988 No. 4 Winthrop beat No. 3 Radford (No. 1 Coastal Carolina and No. 2 Charleston Southern lost in the semifinals)
▪ 1992 No. 3 Campbell beat No. 4 Charleston Southern (No. 1 Radford and No. 2 Liberty lost in the semifinals)
▪ 2003 No. 5 UNC Asheville beat No. 6 Radford (No. 1 Winthrop and No. 2 Liberty lost in the semifinals)
▪ 2015 No. 3 Coastal Carolina beat No. 5 Winthrop (No. 1 Charleston Southern and No. 2 High Point lost in the quarterfinals)
(Winners of these two sets of games play in the semifinals with the semifinal winners playing in Sunday’s championship)
No. 10 Longwood vs. No. 2 Radford, 1 p.m.
No. 6 Gardner-Webb vs. No. 3 Winthrop, 3 p.m.
No. 8 Charleston Southern vs. No. 1 UNC Asheville, 7 p.m.
No. 5 Liberty vs. No. 4 Campbell, 9 p.m.
Leaked mascot texts
The Herald came into possession of a trove of leaked text messages between Big South Conference’s schools’ mascots. They’ve been quite chatty leading up to the tournament:
(Disclaimer: these are all fake. No need to send the angry email.)
No. 4 Campbell (16-14)
Plus: The Fightin’ Camels have the best scorer in the league in Chris Clemons and we all remember what he did in last year’s tournament, averaging 35 points per game, including a 51-point game in an upset win over Asheville, while leading his team to the finals. He has a little more offensive help this year, too, in Marcus Burk and Andrew Eudy.
Minus: Kevin McGeehan’s team isn’t great on defense and it’s sometimes overly reliant on Clemons’ offense.
No. 8 Charleston Southern (15-15)
Plus: The Buccaneers are the hottest team entering the tournament and they’re forcing a lot of turnovers, something Winthrop fans will remember from last week. And they have a matchup problem for opposing defenses in Christian Keeling, a long-armed power guard.
Minus: Barclay Radebaugh’s group is not very good on offense, though they have been manufacturing enough points during the last month for their defense to carry them to wins.
No. 6 Gardner-Webb (14-17)
Plus: Tim Craft’s team enters the tournament on the back of two wins after a four-game skid. Craft is one of the few coaches in the conference with a winning record in the Big South tournament and he knows what he’s doing in March.
Minus: The Runnin’ Bulldogs are weak at point guard, which has led to one of the least efficient offenses in the Big South. Gardner-Webb can score when Liam O’Reilly and David Efianayi start attacking the rim, but there isn’t a facilitator to make things happen when that ploy isn’t working.
No. 5 Liberty (18-13)
Plus: This is one of the country’s elite free throw shooting teams and you love to have that in your pocket come tournament time. The Flames also have some of the best depth in the league; they have a lot of players that any given night can hurt opponents.
Minus: But who is the player that takes over the game for the Flames? As previously mentioned, they have a lot of decent players but no clear go-to guy. You need one of those in March.
No. 10 Longwood (7-25)
Plus: The Lancers have already exceeded expectations by beating No. 7 High Point in Tuesday night’s play-in game. To coach Jayson Gee’s credit, Longwood has moved beyond its first game in two of his four years, pretty good considering the Lancers are always a low seed. So there is no pressure for Longwood, something that helped it during its semifinal run in 2015. The Lancers are also one of the best teams in the league at getting to the free throw line.
Minus: The Lancers’ record doesn’t lie. Sure, they’ve had some adversity with injuries and suspensions. So have other schools. Most of the teams in the league should be able to beat Longwood if they play at a normal level.
No. 2 Radford (19-12)
Plus: The Highlanders are the best offensive rebounders in the conference by a healthy margin. That’s a crucial category to lead headed into a tournament. Mike Jones’ team may be able to offset a bad shooting game (if it happens) with the extra offensive opportunities its effort creates. And Radford has played five overtime games this season, winning four. Helps to have some close game experience.
Minus: Radford has not been a successful Big South tournament team in the last seven or eight years. They’ve only advanced to the semifinals twice since 2010.
No. 1 UNC Asheville (20-11)
Plus: The Bulldogs are playing at home where they are 26-2 in the last two years. Nick McDevitt’s team is also driven by a talented and motivated senior core that will be playing some of its final games in Kimmel Arena.
Minus: Asheville is a bit flimsy inside where Jonathan Baehre continues to develop, and the Bulldogs are also heavily reliant on 3-pointers.
No. 3 Winthrop (18-11)
Plus: The Eagles lead the Big South in offensive and defensive efficiency rating. When Pat Kelsey’s guys are firing on all cylinders they are the best team in the league.
Minus: The Eagles have the league’s most unique talent in Big South player of the year Xavier Cooks. When he’s feeling it, he’s unguardable and Winthrop is very difficult to stop. When he’s not, the Eagles are pretty beatable. Winthrop needs Cooks at his best the next four days.