The Big South Conference men’s basketball landscape already looks dramatically different from the 2018-19 season, which concluded less than two months ago.
Numerous four-year standouts graduated -- ‘finally,’ league fans must think in regards to Campbell’s Chris Clemons -- and many others who were just making names for themselves decided to transfer to bigger schools in more prominent conferences. A budding young coach left for a bigger job, but there was only one coaching departure so far.
The good news for Winthrop fans was that it didn’t recently become two.
Eagles coach Pat Kelsey was a finalist for the vacant Northern Kentucky job, no surprise given his family ties to the school and its proximity to his home neighborhood in Cincinnati. The program has only been eligible for the NCAA Tournament the last three years, following its transition to Division I, and made the Big Dance twice in that time.
Based on reports in the media last weekend, it sounded like Kelsey was a done deal to leave for NKU. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Kelsey met with Parker Executive Search, the firm handling NKU’s hire, on Monday. Then, Yahoo Sports national college sports reporter Pete Thamel tweeted Tuesday that Kelsey was no longer a candidate for the job.
Kelsey told The Herald on Thursday that he was never offered the job by NKU. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported, via unnamed sources close to the NKU search, that negotiations between Kelsey and NKU broke down over a potential buyout in Kelsey’s NKU contract.
Unsurprisingly for a coach that’s staying put, Kelsey wouldn’t respond to that report.
“I’m not gonna comment on anything like that,” said Kelsey. “I’m the head coach at Winthrop and I’m lucky to be here.”
NKU ultimately hired Darrin Horn, the former South Carolina head coach, later Tuesday. Horn had been an assistant coach at Texas the past several seasons.
Winthrop athletic director Ken Halpin’s view of Kelsey and his job status didn’t change throughout the two weeks that he was linked with the NKU job.
‘He was never not my coach,” said Halpin.
There has also been no discussion of a new contract for Kelsey. Halpin said that he and Kelsey discuss adding years to Kelsey’s contract almost every year, because it’s necessary for recruiting. High school players might wonder why a college coach recruiting them has less than three years remaining on his deal. Is he about to get fired or leave?
Kelsey’s current deal, signed in 2017, runs until 2022.
Kelsey thinks incoming recruiting class could be his best
It came as no surprise that Halpin, and later Kelsey, quickly wanted to shift the conversation back toward Winthrop basketball.
The Eagles will have seven newcomers and eight new players (one coming off redshirt) next season, tied for the biggest player turnover during Kelsey’s time in Rock Hill. Three of the team’s top-four scorers -- Nych Smith, Adam Pickett and Bjorn Broman -- graduate.
Both Halpin and Kelsey were effusive about Winthrop’s 2019 recruiting class. The Eagles signed two South Carolina-based high school players for the first time in over two decades, 5-foot-5 Westwood guard Russell Jones Jr. and 6-foot-7 wing Chase Claxton, from Greenville’s Legacy Charter. Well-built 6-foot-5 forward Jamal King joins from eastern North Carolina, and sharpshooter Josh Corbin comes from the same Ohio AAU program that produced Winthrop’s all-time leading scorer, Keon Johnson.
Winthrop added the rim protector it lacked the last two seasons in 6-foot-9 junior college signee DeShawn Thomas, who graduated from A.C. Flora High School. And 6-foot-6 Adonis Arms joins from Division II Northwest Nazarene (Idaho). Arms will sit out this year and play his final season with Winthrop next year. Kelsey said he wouldn’t have taken a “sit one, play one” player unless he was going to make a difference. Arms was his conference’s player of the year last season.
“I think this has the potential to be the best class we’ve signed since I’ve been at Winthrop,” Kelsey said.
Six-foot-8 point guard Chandler Vaudrin will suit up this coming season after sitting out a redshirt year. An elite passer, Vaudrin should create immediate defensive matchup issues for Big South opponents.
“He’s worked relentlessly on his shot. That was kind of the weakness of his game,” said Kelsey. “He’s just such a true pro in his approach. And he has an infectious affect on the rest of the team.”
Those players join a solid returning core, led by 6-foot-8 Josh Ferguson, who will be a senior next season. Guards Kyle Zunic and Charles Falden’s importance will increase and Falden could become a key scorer for the next Winthrop team. Rising sophomore Micheal Anumba showed promise as a rookie, starting every game but one last season. Kelsey thinks that bunch, which could be four of his five starters, will help transition the newcomers into Winthrop’s program.
“All of those guys returning are battle-tested producers,” he said. “They’re true Winthrop basketball culture players.”
Winthrop lost two players to transfer -- Raivis Scerbinskis and Keondre Schumacher -- but they combined to play 143 of the team’s 6,075-minute total last season, and can’t be considered in the same category as some of the departures mentioned below. These are some of the biggest Big South offseason departures so far:
- Eleven of the 15 players that made the Big South’s All-Conference first, second and honorable mention teams are leaving, either through graduation or transfer.
- Campbell’s Chris Clemons, the best scorer in conference history and one of the best in college basketball history, graduated.
- Improving Presbyterian lost its head coach, Dustin Kerns, guard Adam Flagler, who was the freshman of the year, and Francois Lewis and Davon Bell, two of its best players, who were seniors.
- High Point lost its two best players, Jahaad Proctor, an All-Conference performer, and Brandon Kamga, to the transfer portal.
- Radford loses two of its top players, including Ed Polite Jr., the league’s defensive player of the year, while Gardner-Webb, which won the Big South tournament in March, loses its two best players, D.J. Laster and David Efianayi, to graduation.
- And Charleston Southern, which has been hit pretty hard by transfers the last few years, was struck again when first team All-Conference player Christian Keeling decided to move up the ladder for the last years of his college career. He’s apparently considering North Carolina, Georgia Tech, N.C. State, Purdue and Clemson.
Winthrop still has only lost one major contributor to an early transfer during Kelsey’s time at the helm, one reason why the Eagles will likely contend for a league title again in 2019-20.
Kelsey talked with a reporter on the phone Thursday while walking to a meeting with another recruit that was visiting Winthrop’s campus. He gushed about his returning players, and his new ones. It was like nothing noteworthy had happened in the last two weeks.