No Longer First

CONCORD, N.C. -- After two straight seasons of being a unanimous preseason choice to win the Big South Conference basketball title, Winthrop wasn't the choice Tuesday at the league's annual media day.

For the first time since joining the league, High Point was picked to win the title, which would end the Eagles' three-year grip on the trophy.

But the Panthers, who went 11-3 to finish second to the Eagles (14-0) last year, weren't an overwhelming choice, despite Winthrop losing starters Torrell Martin, Craig Bradshaw and Phillip Williams, plus coach Gregg Marshall, from a team that won a league-record 29 games and beat Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament.

The Panthers collected 15 first-place votes and 216 total points, while the Eagles got 14 votes for the top spot and 214 points. High Point was picked as low as fourth and Winthrop no lower than third in the balloting of media representatives, coaches and sports information directors.

"We crushed Winthrop in the poll," High Point coach Bart Lundy joked. "They beat us by two last year and we beat them by two in the poll. I guess turnaround is fair play."

Randy Peele, who takes over the Eagles this season after four years as an assistant, said he wasn't surprised, after what the program lost and with seven players who have never played an NCAA Division I game.

"I didn't pick us to win it," Peele said. "(With all the newcomers), for me to say we're the best in the league would be a pretty bold statement."

Coaches across the board said this could be the most competitive season ever in the Big South, with Ritchie McKay at Liberty, Brad Greenberg at Radford and Cliff Ellis at Coastal Carolina joining Peele as new faces.

"You can put Winthrop and High Point at the top," UNC Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach said, "and then put the other six in a bag, shake them up and see who comes out first."

Coastal Carolina, UNC Asheville and Liberty were picked as high as second, and UNC Asheville and Liberty also got votes for eighth. VMI, which got its highest-ever preseason pick at third, Coastal, UNCA, and Liberty got votes for third through seventh place.

"It's the old cliché," Biedenbach said. "Parity."

High Point returns six of its top nine players, including league player of the year Arizona Reid, the preseason choice to be the league's best again. That group led the Panthers to 22 wins last year, the most since the program joined NCAA Division I.

But Lundy, who said he voted for Winthrop, found out Monday that 6-foot-7 senior forward Jerald Minnis, a projected starter and his most skilled frontcourt player, has been lost for the season after tearing his left Achilles tendon in a pickup game last week.

"We can replace his points and rebounds, but he knows what it takes to win in college basketball," Lundy said. "It's a key loss for us."

Meanwhile, Peele said he can't wait for the team's first practice Friday, after a whirlwind of a spring and summer that saw Marshall leave and him get the job, plus the death of De'Andre Adams and the heated push of recruiting.

"Now," Peele said, "I feel like a coach again."

Reid led the voting for the preseason all-conference team, joined by Winthrop's Michael Jenkins and Chris Gaynor, VMI's Reggie Williams and Coastal Carolina's Jack Leasure.

The women's preseason vote may have been even more surprising, with Radford picked over Liberty. It's the first time since the 1996-97 season Liberty has not been picked to win the title. Radford had 16 first-place votes and 162 points, with Liberty getting nine firsts and 156 points.

Winthrop, which made a late-season run in March and became the first No. 8 seed to eliminate a No. 1 seed (High Point) in the conference tournament, was picked fifth.

The Lady Eagles, 6-26 last year, were picked as high as second and as low as seventh.

"The polls are for the fans," coach Bud Childers said. "The standings are for the coaches and players. "We were probably a tough team to predict. Given what we did last year, we expected to be somewhere in the middle of the pack."

The Lady Eagles' Ashley Fann was a preseason all-conference pick, joining Radford's Corrie Fertitta and Kelli Darden, Liberty's Megan Frazee and UNC Asheville's Ashton Barton. Frazee was preseason player of the year.

The Winthrop men and women open at home Nov. 10, the Lady Eagles facing Navy and the men taking on Queens.