Winthrop University

March Madness begins! Previewing the Big South basketball tourney, Winthrop’s chances

Winthrop ready to get to Campbell and make ‘some noise’ in conference tourney

Hear Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey and senior guard Nych Smith's thoughts on the Big South tournament, after the Eagles’ 134th practice of the 2018-19 men’s college basketball season.
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Hear Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey and senior guard Nych Smith's thoughts on the Big South tournament, after the Eagles’ 134th practice of the 2018-19 men’s college basketball season.

Toss out the lesson plan and roll the TV cart into the classroom: it’s March and it’s time for college basketball.

NCAA Division I postseason play begins in the Carolinas this week with the Big South Conference tournament in Buies Creek, N.C.

Campbell edged Radford last Saturday for the second time this season, nabbing the Big South’s No. 1 seed and hosting rights at least until the semifinals. The highest remaining seed after Friday’s semis hosts the championship game.

Check out this preview of what promises to be one of the best Big South Conference tournaments ever (seriously!). Click on the links below to jump to a particular section:

Tournament schedule

Which team has the best Big South tournament pedigree in the last 10 years?

Is the 2018-19 version of the Big South Conference the best ever?

It’s official: this league LOVES the 3-pointer

Chris Clemons’ last shot at the NCAA Tournament

Don’t forget about Hampton and its scoring machine

Can Winthrop win the Big South tournament?

Which team do you think will win the 2019 tournament?

Bret’s tournament prediction

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Tuesday

No. 7 Presbyterian 106, No. 10 UNC Asheville 59

No. 6 Charleston Southern 71, No. 11 USC Upstate 52

No. 8 Hampton 77, No. 9 Longwood 71

Thursday

No. 2 Radford vs. No. 7 Presbyterian, noon

No. 3 Winthrop vs. No. 6 Charleston Southern, 2 p.m.

No. 1 Campbell vs. No. 8 Hampton, 6 p.m.

No. 4 Gardner-Webb vs. No. 5 High Point, 8 p.m.

Friday

Radford-Presbyterian winner vs. Winthrop-Charleston Southern winner, 6 p.m.

Campbell-Hampton winner vs. Gardner-Webb-High Point winner, 8 p.m.

Sunday

Championship game, 1 p.m., located to be determined

Find the Big South Conference tournament bracket here





Note: all stats are from the morning of March 5, 2019

Historically, the Big South has not been a strong conference. KenPom.com, the amazing college basketball analytics web site, has college basketball data dating back to 2002, and during that time, the Big South’s average ranking was 26.7 (out of 32 Division I conferences).

But as of Tuesday morning, the league is ranked 19th. KenPom.com ranks conferences based on the average rating of teams expected to go .500 in conference play, so essentially, the middle of the league, with outlying teams at the top and bottom of the standings removed from the equation. The Big South’s ranking surged this season because the league’s middle is deeper and better.

That’s delightful news to league commissioner Kyle Kallander, who five years ago began to steer the Big South’s attentions toward basketball. The best way to advance the Big South Conference would be through men’s basketball, and plans were made and standards set that league officials hoped would result in better basketball.

“I think what you’re seeing are the fruits of that emphasis that we put in place,” said Kallander, who credited Big South players and coaches too. “We can’t take credit in the conference office. It’s what’s happening on campus, and the commitment by our institutions.”

This season, the Big South surged past leagues that are normally rated higher, including the Summit League, the Colonial Athletic Association and Ohio Valley. Historically lightweight Big South programs like Longwood and Presbyterian improved this season -- greatly in PC’s case -- and the middle six teams in the standings were only separated by one win in the standings. The league’s No. 8 team, Hampton, statistically has the best offense in the Big South.

“I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “It’s as good as I’ve ever seen it, since I’ve been in the league. Heck, you look at our last 10 opponents and all 10 are in the 100s of KenPom. I know I’ve never played 10 straight opponents of that caliber. Terrific coaches, high level players, and I think it’ll be great made-for-TV drama. True March Madness.”

Campbell will host the quarterfinals and semifinals on Thursday and Friday, but Sunday’s championship game will be hosted by the highest-seeded team still playing. If No. 1 seed Campbell is upset, Saturday could be very busy for Big South employees, and the two teams and their sets of fans, as they pick up and move the tournament to a different location.

“Just about anybody can win this thing,” Kallander said. “From an operational and logistical standpoint, we’ve got to be ready to move Friday night if that situation comes about. The parity that you have in this league, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it.”

ken pom conference rating snip.JPG
From 2002 to 2018, the Big South’s average KenPom ranking was 26.7 (out of 32 Division I conferences). As of Tuesday morning, March 5, 2019, the Big South was ranked 19th, the highest it’s been in the KenPom era. Screenshot of KenPom.com

The numbers are in. At least eight of the Big South’s 11 teams heavily skew their offense toward shooting 3-pointers, making the league the most 3-point leaning out of the 32 Division I conferences.

Of those eight Big South teams that love the 3, four rank in the nation’s top-20 for highest percentage of total shots that come from 3-point range. Winthrop is fifth out of 352 D-I teams, with 53 percent of its shots coming from beyond the arc. Winthrop has shot 933 3-pointers so far this season, breaking the previous school record by almost a 100 with at least one game remaining.

Big South teams will rarely compete with bigger schools for 7-foot-tall recruits. But shooters are much more widely available.

“The 3-pointer is a game-changer in college basketball,” said Presbyterian coach Dustin Kerns, whose team has improved greatly this season in part because of its 3-point shooting.

READ: How a chance encounter with an NBA coach changed Winthrop’s offensive ideas

Even Big South teams that don’t shoot as many triples are dangerous. Gardner-Webb leads the league with 38 percent shooting from 3-point range, though it hoists nowhere near as many as Winthrop, Campbell, Longwood or Presbyterian.

The league’s reliance on long-range shooting could make for an interesting conference tournament this week. You’ve heard your grandpa say it before, “live by the 3, die by the 3.”

“There are a lot of strong guards in our conference,” said Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan. “A lot of teams that play similarly. When you’re talking about a one and out deal, that could create lots of problems for whoever is not hot, or good things for a team that could get hot.”

Big South player of the year Chris Clemons has set 43 Campbell basketball records during his incredible career.

McGeehan didn’t even know the school kept 43 records.

“It’s hard to even keep up with to be honest,” he said.

If we’re being honest here, the wider college basketball audience deserves to see Campbell’s Chris Clemons in the NCAA Tournament.

He’s the best scorer in Big South Conference history, a powerful and athletic dynamo that could score 25 in his sleep.

Clemons leads the nation in scoring at 30.1 points per game, and the 5-foot-9 guard regularly makes SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays for draining game-winners at the buzzer, or dunking over taller opponents.

Clemons is second in the country in free throws made, averaging 7.4 made foul shots per game, and is tied for second in 3-pointers made (125).

He’s become the NCAA’s sixth all-time leading scorer, passing the likes of Larry Bird, Tyler Hansbrough, Oscar Robertson and Hersey Hawkins in recent weeks. Clemons needs just 14 points in the Camels’ tournament opener to move past former Creighton star Doug McDermott into fifth place all-time.

Clemons is only the ninth player in NCAA Division I men’s basketball history to top 3,000 career points. An NCAA Tournament would be the perfect cap to his four years at Campbell.

“That’s what’s driving everybody,” said McGeehan. “I know that’s a huge part of what motivates him on a daily basis. I’m certain he would trade all of that in for that opportunity.”

Clemons has been so good that hardly any attention has been paid to Hampton’s scoring machine, Jermaine Marrow.

Marrow is fifth nationally in scoring at 25.3 points per game and is a high-level creator too, dishing out five assists per game. Any other year, the 6-foot junior would be the talk of the conference.

Hampton joined the Big South this season from the MEAC and many felt the Pirates would adapt quickly. They have the league’s most efficient offense, but still finished eighth in the standings and had to play in one of Tuesday night’s play-in games, against Longwood. The Pirates edged the Lancers 77-71, with Marrow hitting all 16 of his free throws and scoring 28 points.

Hampton beat Campbell, Radford and Winthrop, the top-three seeds in the tournament, during the regular season. Edward Joyner’s team has length and a very good No. 2 player in Kalin Fisher, who is a slick scorer and one of the league’s top defenders. Watch out for the new guys.

snip big south kenpom 10 in a row.JPG
This is a snippet of Winthrop’s KenPom.com page, which has all kinds of in-depth statistical information about the Eagles’ basketball team. The part outlined in red shows the KenPom rating of Winthrop’s final 10 opponents, all of which were in the 100s. That has never happened in the 18 years for which KenPom.com has data. Screenshot

Can Winthrop win the tournament? Sure.

Will it? That’s a much tougher question.

Hoisting the Big South championship trophy on Sunday afternoon would require three consistent performances in a row, something the Eagles have struggled to produce this season.

They have talent and depth, they can hit avalanches of 3s, and they rebound the ball pretty well. But they also turn the ball over at an alarming rate, force an equally alarming low amount of turnovers, and seem to have four, five-minute spans in every game where they lose focus and fall apart.

No portion of a game this season better explained this team than the start of the second meeting with Radford. Winthrop opened the game on a sizzling 10-0 run. This was an Eagles squad that meant business, that wanted to deliver a much-needed win over a team one spot higher in the standings.

After a timeout, Radford ripped off the next 17 points, showing the other side of this Winthrop crew.

“Tournament play, it comes down to getting stops, more than anything,” Kelsey said after Monday’s practice. “The ball’s not always gonna go in and you have to be able to sustain and survive when you’re not shooting your best. And that comes down to sitting down and getting stops, and rebounding.”

Monday was Winthrop’s 134th practice of the season. It came in the midst of a short break from games that was much needed (the Eagles finished the regular season earlier than the rest of the Big South). As Kelsey alluded to earlier in this story, Winthrop played 10 straight Big South games against teams rated in the 100s of KenPom.com’s team rankings, further evidence of how much better the conference is this season.

For context, the 2002-03 Winthrop team didn’t play a team ranked in the 100s during its final 20 games, and only three all season. The Eagles’ legendary 2006-07 team only played seven that fateful season.

This year’s team went 5-5 in the final 10 games. So having a few extra days off before the tournament was welcomed.

“It was good for everybody to get back on the same page, mentally,” said Winthrop senior guard Nych Smith. “We played one of the toughest, if not the toughest, schedule in conference. Zero and zero, now. It’s a new season.”

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Remember the part about 3-pointers? Because of that, I initially leaned toward a team that has offensive balance: Radford.

The Highlanders also have experience -- they won the league tournament last year and return many of those same players -- plus they have Carlik Jones, who would battle with Campbell’s Clemons for title of most clutch Big South player. It was Jones’ buzzer-beating 3 that sent Radford to the Big Dance last season.

But Campbell will have the advantage of playing at home and has beaten Radford twice this season. And consider this data dug up by college basketball analytics guru, Jordan Sperber, on teams playing for a third time during the same season: since 2009, the team that won the first two games, won the third game 72 percent of the time.

Oh, and the Camels have the force of nature named Chris Clemons, also known as he who brought the New York Times to Buies Creek.

I’m going with Campbell.

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