Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: The 2012-13 season ended unexpectedly when 21-loss Liberty won the Big South Conference Tournament and found its way into the NCAA Tournament. The Flames beat Charleston Southern to clinch their bid to the Big Dance. All that after not beating a Division I school until Dec. 31.
High Point and Charleston Southern were the two best teams going into the 2013 conference tournament, and it appears like that is the case again this season.
Both teams return some of the best talent in the conference, and fans of both squads shouldn't worry about either not performing well in a league that features four teams with brand new coaches.
The next group includes Liberty, Winthrop, Gardner-Webb and Radford. Gardner- Webb won 21 games last season, but losing its coach will be an obstacle for the Bulldogs. These four teams have all been building solid programs that continue to improve and will be seeking to take the next step.
The bottom of the conference will likely consist of VMI, Longwood, Campbell South, Coastal Carolina, UNC-Asheville, and Presbyterian. Each has a young roster, and several new coaches which will make it difficult for some of them to mesh early.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Charleston Southern
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: NORTH DIVISION: 1. High Point, 2. Liberty, 3. Radford, 4. VMI, 5. Longwood, 6. Campbell; SOUTH DIVISION: 1. Charleston Southern, 2. Winthrop, 3. Gardner-Webb, 4. Coastal Carolina, 5. UNC-Asheville, 6. Presbyterian
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
HIGH POINT: The Panthers will try to improve on their first-round loss to UC Irvine last year in the CIT. Expect this team to improve upon last season's 17-14 overall record, which included an impressive 12-4 league ledger. High Point boasts the best frontcourt in the conference with the tandem of John Brown (16.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and Allan Chaney (14.4 ppg, 1.3 bpg). Chaney was granted a sixth year of eligibility after battling a heart condition during his career. Brown is coming off a broken foot that he sustained last March, which hurt the team in the conference tournament. Two issues that face the Panthers this season are questionable guard play and whether or not coach Scott Cherry can overcome his postseason struggles on the sidelines. Adam Weary (10 ppg, 1.4 spg) is a good player, but is not a true point guard which is what High Point lacks. The Panthers have a walk-on in Tre Duncan (1.1 ppg) and incoming freshman Jorge Perez-Laham (6-1, 187) to man the point for them this season.
LIBERTY: Dale Layer's team didn't play particularly well during the 2012-13 regular season, but went on a tear during the conference tournament to earn an NCAA Tournament berth. With a sub par 15-21 record, Liberty was a huge surprise to win the Big South tourney title. The Flames are a veteran group that could cause some trouble in the conference again this season. They return three guys that averaged more than 10 points per game last season in John Caleb Sanders (14.4 ppg, 3.6 apg), Davon Marshall (13.6 ppg) and Antwan Burrus (11.2 ppg, 1.3 bpg). Liberty doesn't have the most impressive frontcourt rotation, but what it does have is size. Joel Vander Pol, Andrew Smith, JR Coronado, Tomasz Gielo and Sommy Ogukwe are all 6-foot-7 or taller. Size is certainly something you can't teach, and having it in bulk is definitely an advantage.
RADFORD: Mike Jones' team returns nearly everyone from last season, with only two freshmen expected to see time this year. The Highlanders will look to take that next step and contend for the conference title. In the past three seasons, Radford has won 24 games, 13 of those coming within the last 12 months. This team is definitely moving in the right direction, and this season could see them get over the .500 mark. The Highlanders have a talented backcourt with junior RJ Price (13.6 ppg, 1.1 spg) and sophomore Ya Ya Anderson (8.8 ppg). It will be expected that Anderson improve upon those numbers after having a year of college basketball under his belt. The team's top scorer from a year ago, Javonte Green (14.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg), is entering his junior year and will try to build upon his impressive numbers from a season ago. The team will have to be more consistent across the board if its going to achieve its goals and contend for the conference crown.
VMI: Duggar Baucom's club probably lost the best player in the conference with the departure of 2012-13 Big South Player of the Year, Stan Okoye (21.5 ppg, 9.4 rpg). VMI was a respectable 14-17 last season with Okoye leading the way, but luckily for the Keydets, in their final season in this conference, last year's Big South Defensive Player of the Year DJ Covington (15 ppg, 3 bpg) and Rodney Glasgow (11.7 ppg, 4.8 apg) are back for their senior seasons. If Covington and Glasgow can at least play as well as they did in 2012-13, if not better, VMI could make some noise in its final season in the conference.
LONGWOOD: Jayson Gee takes over the Lancers after previously being an assistant at Cleveland State. Since becoming a Division I team in 2004, Longwood has had only one winning season and last year's 8-25 record is certainly not encouraging. An already bad team saw four players transfer, including Michael Kessens (13.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg) who was impressive last season as a freshman but left for Alabama. Longwood is not totally devoid of talent however, as Tristan Carey (15.6 ppg, 2.2 spg) is a 6-foot-4 guard who will try to lead his team in his senior season. Coach Gee will also have Jeylani Dublin (10 ppg, 5.7 rpg) as a part of his frontcourt. Sophomore guard Lucas Woodhouse (5.5 apg) will attempt to continue his progression following a freshman campaign in which led the conference in assists (Big South games). Gee, who has preached defense will likely have to preach patience too, as he has nine new players to work into the mix.
CAMPBELL: First-year Coach Kevin McGheehan might have a few losing seasons ahead of him with the new Princeton offense he wants to implement and a lack of scorers on his roster. Last season's 13-20 overall record and 7-9 conference mark might start to look good for a fan base that is clamoring for a consistent winner. Star guard Trey Freeman (14.3 ppg, 5.8 apg) left Campbell for Old Dominion, and Darren White (21.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg) graduated. That leaves the Camels with Reco McCarter (8 ppg, 1.2 spg) and Marvelle Harris (8.2 ppg, 1.1 bpg) as their top returning players. McGheehan, who was previously an assistant at Richmond, may need to take notes from his former team and realize that it may take some losing before the winning comes.
CHARLESTON SOUTHERN: Barclay Radebaugh had easily the best team in the Big South last season. The Buccaneers' 19-13 record and 12-4 league ledger proves just how well they played. Radebaugh's squad felt disappointment by losing to Liberty in the conference championship game. They followed that up with a first-round NIT loss to Southern Miss. Although the Buccaneers faltered in the conference tournament, they will try to reassert their dominance. If that's going to happen, the talented backcourt duo of Arlon Harper (15.3 ppg, 2 spg) and Saah Nimley (15.9 ppg, 5 apg) will need to be on top of their game. Nimley was a First Team All-Big South selection last season as a sophomore, and Harper made it on the Second Team. The loss of Jeremy Sexton (9.9 ppg) and Mathiang Muo (11.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg) will hurt the Buccaneers, but Cedrick Bowen (7.5 ppg) and Paul Gombwer (5.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg) will likely see an increase in playing time.
WINTHROP: Pat Kelsey will try to improve upon the Eagles' 14-17 record last season. Kelsey, who was in his first year as coach in 2012-13, showed some real growth with Winthrop. The program had only won 39 games the previous three years before he got to Rock Hill. The Eagles return Derrick Henry (11.4 ppg), Joab Jerome (10.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Andre Smith (9.1 ppg, 1 spg), but one of the team's weak points will be in the frontcourt. James Bourne (5.9 ppg, 3.8 rebounds) and Larry Brown (5.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg) are the Eagles' top returning forwards. The addition of two talented freshmen in Jarad Scott (6- foot-8, 220 pounds) and Duby Okeke (6-foot-8, 230 pounds) should help.
GARDNER-WEBB: Tim Craft enters his first season at the helm of the Bulldogs, and his team will be without last year's top scorer, Tashan Newsome (14.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg). The Bulldogs also lost quality guard Max Landis (7.9 ppg) as he transferred. As a result, it will be difficult for Gardner-Webb to match last year's 21-13 record. It does however, gain two transfers in former Texas A&M guard Naji Hibbert (6-foot-5, 190 pounds) and former Mount St. Mary's guard John Castellanos (6-foot-1, 180 pounds). The groups hopes it can transition smoothly into playing under a new coach as it attempts to log back-to-back 20- win campaigns. The potential is there, but a lot needs to go right for that to happen.
COASTAL CAROLINA: Cliff Ellis has his work cut out for him this season after losing his top two players from a team that went 14-15 a year ago. Anthony Raffa (19.1 ppg, 1.9 spg) and Kierre Greenwood (12.9 ppg, 4.1 apg) will be difficult to replace, but the Chanticleers hope that guard Warren Gillis (10.5 ppg, 1.6 spg) can continue to grow in his junior season and take over the scoring burden that was left with the departures of Raffa and Greenwood. Coastal Carolina will also look to South Carolina transfer Eric Smith (5.7 ppg) to hopefully pick up some of the scoring slack. With so much turnover, it is tough to expect the Chanticleers to be one of the better teams in the conference, but that could change if some players take a leap forward and the new pieces mesh sooner rather than later.
UNC-ASHEVILLE: Longtime assistant Nick McDevitt has a tough task ahead of him in his first year as the Bulldogs' head coach. The team lost its top two scorers, Jeremy Atkinson (17.8 ppg, 7.1 rpg) to graduation and Keith Hornsby (15 ppg, 3.1 apg) to LSU. The Bulldogs came into last season as the two-time defending Big South champs, but they struggled and were only able to manage a 16-16 record. They then lost in the first round of the conference tournament. If McDevitt wants to get back to the winning ways of a few years ago he will have to lean on some new talent, along with his veterans. Sophomore forward Will Weeks (9 ppg, 5.4 rpg) will have to continue trending upward, and senior guard Trent Meyer (9.7 ppg, 3.7apg) will also have to make sure he plays well this season if UNCA is to make a postseason run.
PRESBYTERIAN: The Blue Hose have yet to enjoy a winning season as a Division I team, and it is unlikely that they have a positive experience this time around. Last season, they went 8-24 overall with a 4-12 league ledger. Presbyterian lost six players from that squad, including top scorer Khalid Mutakabbir (15.7 ppg, 1.1 spg). Gregg Nibbert's group has one bright spot however, as the team was able to nab highly-regarded shooting guard Reggie Dillard (6-foot-2,200 pounds). Dillard passed up offers from Tennessee and VCU to go to Presbyterian. Expect him to be a serious Freshman of the Year candidate if he is able to live up to the hype. Jordan Downing (12.8 ppg) is a nice player to hopefully build around for the next year, as the Blue Hose try to improve upon last season's dismal record.