Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: It was Coastal Carolina that represented the Big South in the NCAA Tournament a year ago after capturing the top-seed in the South Division and winning the conference tournament, earning their its first trip to the Big Dance since 1993. With four of the team's five starters returning to the fold, it will once again be the Chanticleers with a target on their backs heading into the 2014-15 campaign.
Radford loses absolutely no one from a squad that posted 22 wins a year ago, so expect another large win total this time around, which could result in a conference title. High Point and Winthrop round out the upper echelon in the league.
It was High Point that took the North Division and won the regular-season crown, edging out Coastal Carolina by a single game in the overall standings a year ago and with a solid nucleus that includes one of the Big South's most explosive scorers, the Panthers will once again be at or near the top of the standings. The Eagles are coming off their first 20-win campaign in six years and with four starters returning, expect more of the same.
The second tier in the Big South will likely consist of Gardner-Webb, UNC Asheville and Charleston Southern. The Bulldogs had a solid season in Tim Craft's debut at the helm, sporting an 18-15 overall record and a 10-6 mark in conference play. Three starters return to give Gardner-Webb hope for another step in the right direction. UNC Asheville is in the same boat, coming off a 17-15 campaign with a 10-6 league ledger and three starters back in Nick McDevitt's second season with the Bulldogs. The Buccaneers were five games under .500 last year, but injuries down the stretch helped bury the team late.
Finally, teams like Presbyterian, Longwood and Liberty will fight to stay out of the conference cellar. The Blue Hose possess the top returning scorer in the Big South this year but that did little to put the team in the win column in 2013-14, as they won just two conference games all of last season. While the offense seems to be there, Presbyterian will need to shore things up defensively to make a move up the conference ladder. A mass exodus at Longwood will hinder the Lancers' chances at significantly improving (if at all) on last year's eight-win total. Dale Layer will have to be a miracle worker if he is to keep the Flames competitive. Liberty loses a ton of veteran leadership in 2014-15 and will rely on mostly newcomers night-in and night-out.
The landscape is a bit different for the 2014-15 season in the Big South as VMI's departure has reduced the amount of programs in the league to 11, negating the two division format.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Coastal Carolina
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Coastal Carolina, 2. Radford, 3. High Point, 4. Winthrop, 5. Gardner-Webb, 6. UNC Asheville, 7. Charleston Southern, 8. Campbell, 9. Presbyterian, 10. Longwood, 11. Liberty
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
COASTAL CAROLINA: The Chanticleers posted a 21-win season a year ago, captured the Big South Tournament title and gave Virginia a run for its money in the NCAA Tournament, leading at the half. While Coastal Carolina couldn't get past the Cavaliers, Cliff Ellis' squad certainly earned some props for the program and the Big South as a whole. Four of last year's five starters return for CCSU, including the dynamic backcourt trio of Elijah Wilson (15.8 ppg), Warren Gillis (14.7 ppg) and Josh Cameron (13.8 ppg). Wilson found a spot on the conference's All-Freshman squad last year and was named a preseason first-team member this year. A senior, Gillis brings veteran leadership to the team. The squad doesn't have the same kind of depth in the frontcourt, although junior forward Badou Diagne (8.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg) came on strong late and could elevate his game to new heights this season. The Chanticleers return just over 90 percent of their scoring from last year, so expect more of the same from the conference favorites.
RADFORD: If any team will contend with Coastal Carolina this year it should be Radford. Mike Jones has the luxury of returning all five starters from a team that won 22 games a year ago. Senior guard Javonte Green could vie for Player of the Year honors this season, as the versatile playmaker is a scorer, rebounder and defensive specialist at a modest 6-foot-4. Green, who netted 16.9 ppg a year ago, was second in the league in field-goal percentage and first in steals, while finding time to grab 8.1 rebounds per game. He will side up with fellow senior R.J. Price (13.2 ppg) and juniors Ya Ya Anderson (11.5 ppg) and Rashun Davis (10.4 ppg) in the backcourt, giving the Highlanders plenty of perimeter scoring. The frontcourt isn't as explosive, but it is efficient, with players like Brandon Holcomb, Kyle Noreen, Kion Brown and Jalen Carethers all contributing.
HIGH POINT: The Panthers finished one game over .500 at 16-15 overall last season, but a whopping 12 of those victories came in conference play, where the team took the top spot in the North Division (12-4). Unlike Coastal Carolina and Radford, High Point's strength is in the frontcourt, where Big South Player of the Year John Brown resides. The 6-8 junior was impossible to guard last year, resulting in gaudy averages of 19.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. Aiding Brown this year will be the return of the other four starters from last season, including guards Devante Wallace (12.6 ppg) and Adam Weary (11.7 ppg) and forward Lorenzo Cugini (8.1 ppg). The 6-7 Cugini doubled his averages last season and another boost in production could be in line with Brown up front with him. Newcomer Miles Bowman (20.4 ppg) was a scoring machine at Louisburg College last year and could make an immediate impact in 2014-15.
WINTHROP: Another team that reached the 20-win plateau, Winthrop (20-13) managed to reach the conference tournament championship game before bowing to Coastal Carolina. The team's 10-6 league ledger was good for second place in the South Division. Four starters return to the fold, giving Pat Kelsey's squad a real opportunity to build on its solid 2013-14 campaign. This team won't overwhelm foes with its size, but rather with its energy level up and down the floor. A guard-heavy squad, the Eagles boast of three perimeter scoring threats in seniors Keon Moore (14.0 ppg) and Andre Smith (10.1 ppg) and sophomore Keon Johnson (12.3 ppg). Moore was tabbed as a preseason second- team member. Australian import Xavier Cooks as well as Javier Lopez could provide some frontcourt balance as freshmen this season. Kelsey's Eagles won six more games last year than his first season at the helm, so he seems to be getting the most out of his roster.
GARDNER-WEBB: The Runnin' Bulldogs could be the kind of program that flies under the radar this season. Gardner-Webb won 18 games last season, 10 of which came in the Big South, but with two key players from that squad no longer in the mix, Tim Craft's second season with the team holds a lot of questions. One constant however, is the play of forward Jerome Hill. The 6-5 junior is coming off a sophomore campaign in which he averaging 14.4 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. Senior guard Tyler Strange (9.5 ppg, 4.9 apg) must look for his own shot more this season to help assuage the losses of Naji Hibbert (11.5 ppg) and Donta Harper (10.1 ppg). The maturation of sophomore forward Tyrell Nelson (8.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and senior center Mike Byron (3.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg) is necessary for Gardner-Webb's move up the conference ladder in 2014-15.
UNC ASHEVILLE: Nick McDevitt also had a rather solid debut season with UNC Asheville. The Bulldogs went 17-15 overall and 10-6 in the Big South, while advancing to the tournament's semifinal round. Three starters return from that team, including the Big South's top scorer from last year, Andrew Rousey (20.3 ppg). The 5-10 guard did so as a freshman in 2013-14 so the sky is the limit for Rousey, who will once again be the focal point of the UNCA attack. Junior forward Sam Hughes (8.2 ppg) and sophomore guard David Robertson (7.8 ppg) are the other two returning starters for the Bulldogs. The team must replace production both inside and out with the departure of guard Jaron Lane (16.5 ppg) and center D.J. Cunningham (11.6 ppg, 9.9 rpg). A healthy Will Weeks, who redshirted last season after suffering a knee injury after just two games, could be the answer to scoring in the paint for the Bulldogs this season.
CHARLESTON SOUTHERN: Barclay Radebaugh's Buccaneers finished last season five games under .500 (13-18), but the team's demise had a lot to do with injuries down the stretch, specifically a knee injury to leading scorer Saah Nimley (13.3 ppg). The good news for CSU is that Nimley is healthy to start the season and should pick up where he left off. Nimley was named to the All-Big South First-Team to start the season. He isn't the only Buccaneer garnering preseason honors, as backcourt mate Arlon Harper (12.6 ppg) was tabbed a second-team member. The team does lose Matt Kennedy (12.5 ppg) and his scoring, but Nimley and Harper form one of the top backcourt duos in the conference nonetheless and will provide Charleston Southern with plenty of perimeter scoring. Senior forward Will Saunders (10.5 ppg) has shown flashes of elite scoring talent at times thanks to his 3-point acumen (.404). The frontcourt however, lacks a defining player down low, although Radebaugh hopes that senior forward Paul Gombwer (5.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg) can take the next step and become a real force.
CAMPBELL: Unlike other first-year coaches in the league, Kevin McGeehan's first season at Campbell didn't really infuse the fan base with tons of confidence, as the Camels finished just 12-20 overall and 6-10 in league play. Things started well, but ended horribly, as Campbell dropped nine of its last 10 games to close out the year. This season however, could prove to be a better result, with three starters returning, the most explosive of which is senior guard Reco McCarter. The 6-6 veteran is a nightmare to cover with his height in the backcourt, showing the ability to both score (12.7 ppg) and rebound (5.1 rpg). Another lengthy guard, the 6-5 Andrew Ryan (9.9 ppg) is a valuable asset along the perimeter. Campbell likes to shoot the long ball, ranking 13th nationally last year with 795 attempts from 3-point range. Ryan was a big part of that, as he ranks in the school's top-10 in 3-pointers made (116). Junior forward D.J. Mason (10.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg) adds frontcourt efficiency, shooting just over 50 percent from the floor a year ago.
PRESBYTERIAN: There weren't a whole lot of positives to take from Presbyterian's six-win season a year ago. Gregg Nibert's squad won just two Big South tilts and closed the year with five straight losses and suffered through a 10-game slide, going winless in the month of January. All five starters return from that team, but the one that really counts is senior guard Jordan Dowling. The 6-5 scoring machine took a ton of shots a year ago, leading to a whopping 20.2 ppg (second in the Big South). Sophomore guards Reggie Dillard (12.1 ppg) and Markus Terry (8.4 ppg) add to the backcourt depth for the Blue Hose, while senior center William Truss (10.9 ppg, 9.0 rpg) is a load in the low post. Defense was a problem for Presbyterian last year, as the team finished a dismal 310th nationally, allowing 76.4 ppg. If that doesn't change this season it won't matter how much Dowling fills up the basket.
LONGWOOD: Jayson Gee's first season at Longwood lacked the wow factor that he had hoped for, as the Lancers limped their way to an ugly 8-24 campaign that saw the team go just 3-13 in the Big South. Longwood captured just one victory (over Campbell) from late January through early March, with a pair of five- game losing streaks sandwiched around the win over the Camels. Not only did the team lose prolific scorer Tristan Carey (18.5 ppg) to graduation, but Karl Ziegler (12.5 ppg), Lucas Woodhouse (11.5 ppg, 6.7 apg) and Jeylani Dublin (10.4 ppg) all transferring. That leaves just junior guard Leron Fisher (6.9 ppg) with starting experience. The hope is that juco transfers Shaquille Johnson (6-5, 220) and Jason Pimentel (6-8, 230) can made immediate impacts, for a squad that lacks any real difference makers to start the season.
LIBERTY: Dale Layer's Flames are another team that must replace a ton of veteran talent and try to avoid the conference cellar. Liberty went 11-21 a year ago, including a mere 5-11 conference mark. The team dropped nine of its last 11 games to close out the year, so there was certainly a bad taste left in the mouths of all involved with the program at season's end. Three senior starters are gone and all three, Antwan Burrus, John Caleb Sanders and Davon Marshall were double-digit scorers. Junior guard Joe Retic isn't much of a scorer (4.8 ppg), but he will be asked to facilitate Layer's offensive scheme and run the point. Senior forwards Tomasz Gielo (10.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Andrew Smith (8.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg) are valuable frontcourt commodities who need to step up and elevate their respective games this season. A large recruiting class will get plenty of minutes in what looks to be a rebuilding year for the Flames.