The eleven current Big South men’s basketball coaches have combined for 23 trips to the NCAA Tournament. Eighteen of those belong to the one of the league’s newest coaches, who also has the pudgiest nickname.
Tubby Smith, who won a national championship at Kentucky in 1997, returned to his alma mater, High Point, this past offseason and instantly became the most respected, successful head coach in the conference. Smith, who has won 597 games and an NCAA Tournament championship in his 27 years, said Tuesday he never really expected to coach High Point’s basketball team.
“I said it would be my dream job but that was back when I didn’t have... well, I was a high school coach maybe,” Smith said, laughing. “That’s not to take anything away from High Point but when you’ve been at the places I’ve been... but sometimes the stars align and good fortune happens. We shared the vision they have for this university.”
The 67-year old’s first game as High Point head coach will be the 900th of his head coaching career. In 27 years he’s made successful stops at Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Texas Tech and Memphis, where he was fired after last season. Memphis was the only school Smith didn’t take to the NCAA Tournament.
The Big South has made changes in recent years aimed toward helping its member schools not only reach the NCAA Tournament, but earn the highest possible seeds and advance in the tournament. Radford did that last year, beating Long Island in a play-in game. While the Big South had no say in High Point’s decision to hire Smith, league officials were thrilled that a coach of his pedigree would join the league. The addition of Smith increases the visibility and legitimacy of a conference that’s always fighting for both.
“I certainly didn’t put it past High Point, or their president, Nido Qubein, to attract Tubby and get him to come back home,” said league commissioner Kyle Kallander at Tuesday’s Big South basketball media gathering in Charlotte. “But when I first heard it, I was like, ‘wow. What a great hire.’”
Smith’s hiring was further evidence of High Point’s ambition under Qubein. On the same day Smith was introduced as the school’s coach, High Point also unveiled the $130 million Nido and Mariana Qubein Arena, a 4,500-seat basketball facility that will also house a convention center and hotel when it opens in 2020. The arena -- a major upgrade in every way from the Panthers’ current home, the Millis Center -- will boost the university and the city of High Point as a whole, and is the latest improvement at a school that’s drastically changed since Smith was a student.
“Well, first there were about 20 buildings on campus and now there are 120,” he said. “The transformation has been phenomenal. (Qubein) has found the right formula.”
The collective experiences on Smith’s resume dwarfs any of the other coaches in the Big South, especially Longwood’s Griff Aldrich and UNC Asheville’s Mike Morrell, both rookie head coaches. The 35-year old Morrell wasn’t even born when Smith was wearing knee-high socks and low-top shoes for Panthers basketball teams in the early 70s.
Only a few of the Big South’s coaches have coached against Smith’s teams. USC Upstate’s new head coach, Dave Dickerson, scouted Smith’s Minnesota squad when Dickerson was an assistant coach at Ohio State. Smith’s teams don’t have a standout style, like Virginia Commonwealth’s pressing Havoc, or the snail’s pace and defensive focus of Tony Bennett’s Virginia. But Tubby Smith-coached teams are fundamentally elite, according to Dickerson.
“They’re gonna be very disciplined, very hard-nosed and they’re gonna be very disciplined in the halfcourt, both offensively and defensively,” said Dickerson. “For this conference, it’s gonna be very difficult to guard.”
Some Big South head coaches have been to the Big Dance multiple times as either assistant coaches or players, Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey for example. He led Winthrop to the 2017 NCAA Tournament as a head coach, and also coached and played in the tournament at Xavier and Wake Forest. But few have the March Madness pedigree of Smith.
“It made my job a lot harder. I knew that from Day 1,” said Radford coach Mike Jones, whose team is the 2018-19 preseason favorite after reaching the NCAA Tournament last season. “He’s been a coach that I’ve had a lot of respect for for a lot of years. To bring a coach like that into the league, I think it served notice, ‘hey, this is a different deal.’”
The league’s 11 men’s basketball coaches gathered at various points on Monday and Tuesday for promotional photo shoots and group pictures. Undoubtedly there were some fanboy feelings being suppressed. Kelsey said it’ll be crazy to look down the sideline on Jan. 12, 2019 when High Point plays in Rock Hill and see Smith in front of the opposite bench, then try to match wits with the future Hall of Famer.
“I was like, ‘no way,’ when it happened,” said Kelsey. “I kind of forgot about it, then we went to the spring meetings in Hilton Head and I’m like, ‘that’s Tubby Smith!’ I was starstruck, I was in awe.”
Men’s basketball preseason poll and awards
Preseason poll: 1. Radford (28); 2. Winthrop (2); 3. Hampton (2); 4. Campbell; 5. Charleston Southern; 6. Gardner-Webb (1); 7. High Point; 8. UNC Asheville; 9. Presbyterian; 10. Longwood; 11. USC Upstate.
Preseason player of the year: Chris Clemons, Campbell
First team: Chris Clemons, Campbell, Sr., G (Raleigh, N.C.); Ed Polite Jr., Radford, Sr., F (Lanham, Md.); Christian Keeling, Charleston Southern, Jr., G (Augusta, Ga.); David Efianayi, Gardner-Webb, R-Sr., G (Orlando, Fla.); Jermaine Marrow, Hampton, Jr., G (Newport News, Va.).
Second team: Carlik Jones, Radford, R-So., G (Cincinnati, Ohio); Jahaad Proctor, High Point, R-Jr., G (Harrisburg, Pa.); Josh Ferguson, Winthrop, Jr., F (Miami, Fla.); Isaiah Walton, Longwood, R-Sr., G (Oberlin, Ohio); Deion Holmes, USC Upstate, Sr., G (Chesnee, S.C.).
Women’s basketball preseason poll and awards
Preseason poll: 1. Radford (9); 2. High Point (2); 3. UNC Asheville; 4. Hampton; 5. Campbell; 6. Charleston Southern; 7. Presbyterian; 8. Gardner-Webb; 9. USC Upstate; 10. Longwood; 11. Winthrop.
Preseason player of the year: Emma Bockrath, High Point
First team: Emma Bockrath, High Point, Sr., G (Dayton, Ohio); Destinee Walker, Radford, Sr., G/F (Florence, S.C.)Jessica Wall, UNC Asheville, Sr., G (Chapel Hill, N.C.); Kacie Hall, Presbyterian College, Jr., (South Webster, Ohio); K’lynn Willis, Hampton, Sr., G (Detroit, Mich.).
Second team: Weknyne Dumorne, Charleston Southern, Sr., F (Miami, Fla.); Shea Morgan, High Point, Sr., F (Kettering, Ohio); Ky’Asia Stanford, Gardner-Webb, Sr., G (Bear, Del.); Lydia Rivers, Radford, R-Jr., F (Kinston, N.C.); Rachel Burns, Charleston Southern, Sr., G (Gainesville, Va.).