Winthrop University

Who are the contenders in Big South Conference men’s basketball, headed into Saturday’s openers?

Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey previews Big South opener against High Point

Winthrop men’s basketball coach Pat Kelsey previewed the Eagles’ Big South Conference opener against High Point Dec. 30, 2017.
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Winthrop men’s basketball coach Pat Kelsey previewed the Eagles’ Big South Conference opener against High Point Dec. 30, 2017.

Here’s a prediction: the Big South Conference men’s basketball regular season championship will go to the wire.

The league’s schedule begins Saturday and at least five teams look seriously capable of winning the regular season title and/or conference tournament. Any one of Liberty, UNC Asheville, Winthrop, Campbell and Radford could win the league.

Compare some of Winthrop and High Point’s team statistics ahead of Saturday’s Big South Conference opener:

 

Take a look at five teams that should contend for the league’s regular season championship, and two more that could make some noise in the tournament:

The contenders (no particular order)

Winthrop (6-5): this team can score the ball and if it can raise the level of its defending and rebounding by tourney time, the Eagles will have a shot to return to the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles have the most versatile player in the league in senior Xavier Cooks, and need him to dominate in league play. Winthrop’s success will hinge on some of its younger and newer players realizing their considerable potential in the next two months.

Best win: smashing Furman by 21 on the road.

UNC Asheville (7-6): offensive turnovers are hampering the Bulldogs a bit, but Nick McDevitt has another defensive team worthy of the school’s nickname. Asheville can still lean on its veteran and talented trio of Ahmad Thomas, MaCio Teague and Kevin Vannatta for scoring, defense and leadership. The question is what do the Bulldogs have inside, where they look a little lighter weight?

Best win: toss-up between beating Monmouth or Wofford (by 20 points), both at home.

Liberty (9-4): Many around the Big South expected big improvement from Ritchie McKay’s team this year. The Flames are deep and relatively long at most positions, and they’re not allowing teams to shoot well from 3-point range, or to offensive rebound. Another interesting development: Liberty has made 35 more free throws than any other team in the league and is shooting 79 percent as a team, seventh-best in the country. The Flames are serious contenders.

Best win: beating Wake Forest by 13 back in November is probably the best win for the entire Big South thus far.

Campbell (6-6): one of the best offensive teams in the league will be able to hang with anybody, and when Chris Clemons is having a good night, beat anybody. The Camels are 11th in the country in 3-point shooting percentage (42.2), and guard Marcus Burk has really elevated his scoring (18 points per game) to take some of the pressure off Clemons and make Campbell more dangerous. There is still a question whether the Camels can consistently perform as a group over the next two months.

Best win: not much to pick from, but beating Stetson on the road wasn’t a bad result.

Radford (7-6): this hungry rebounding unit will be a tough out most nights, especially for Winthrop, which has struggled with big, physical opponents. The Highlanders likely want to avoid track meets with some of the more offensively-inclined teams in the league, Winthrop for example. Will Mike Davis’ crew be able to shoot consistently enough to contend? Either way, not a fun team to play.

Best win: Beating California-Davis in overtime two days before Christmas was a nice win for the Highlanders.

The maybes

Gardner-Webb (5-8): D.J. Laster has gladly swallowed up the offensive opportunities that were vacated by Tyrell Nelson’s graduation and Laquincy Rideau’s transfer to South Florida. Laster is shooting 37 percent of the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ shots in games against Division I competition, the fourth-highest percentage in the country. David Efianayi has been a slightly more efficient offensive threat and he and Laster should mean Tim Craft’s team is a tricky opponent, especially come tournament time.

High Point (5-6): Brandon Kamga, a 6-foot-5 transfer from Northeastern, has been a difference-maker for the Panthers so far. Scott Cherry has a decent-looking team that is forcing a lot of turnovers, particularly through steals. High Point is top-30 nationally in steal percentage, which should help it create more offensive opportunities.

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