Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Big South Conference Tournament Preview

The Big South Conference may be home to one of the least wide-open tournaments in the country. Winthrop, at 15-1, have won their last 15 games and 10 have been by double-digits. That is the stranglehold the Eagles seem to have on the league this season. However, if you look at their stats and the personnel they have, one might not think that they would be running away with the championship. They go ten deep, with no one averaging over 30 minutes per game. The Eagles' balance is very good, but leading the way for them is Torrell Martin, the top scorer and rebounder for the team. He, at 6-5, and 6-6 James Shuler give them extraordinary size in the backcourt for a Big South team. Shuler is second on the squad in both scoring and rebounding. Even though they are only sixth in scoring in the conference, Winthrop only allows 59.1 points per game, good enough for tenth in the country. Their size (five of their top six players are 6-5 or taller) and defensive ability are too much for most teams to handle. Don't mark this one down in stone just yet though; there are a couple of other teams that are looking to unseat the Eagles. Liberty was the only other above .500 team in the conference, finishing at 11-5. They have given Winthrop two tough games, losing both by a combined 10 points. David Dees and Larry Blair both average 16.4 ppg and can both carry the team on any given night. If they are off, however, the Flames could be in trouble. The only other options on offense are Leo Lightbourne, who also is second in the conference in rebounds, and Brian Woodson, who is second in the Big South in assists, but only averages 8 points per contest. The rest of the conference is a crapshoot. UNC-Asheville finished at 8-8, but Birmingham Southern, High Point, Charleston Southern, Radford, and Coastal Carolina all went 7-9. That means two things: a) Winthrop and Liberty are the class of the league and b) Seeds 3-8 are all pretty much equal and could beat any team in the conference if they are hot. UNC-Asheville has lost two in a row coming into the tournament but can play with the best, as they also gave Winthrop two of their toughest games, losing both by a combined 15 points. Bryan McCullough is their only double digit scorer, and they also rank last in scoring defense. Birmingham Southern is one of the more inconsistent teams in the league, but can be a tough team. They are second in the league in scoring defense, but also rank first in field goal percentage and second in three-point shooting--both offensive categories. Obviously, the Panthers are playing better ball than their record shows, and they are an enigma. Jakob Sigurdarson has scored in double figures in all but two Big South games this season. High Point have lost seven of their last nine after starting the conference season 5-2. That may look like they have thrown in the towel, but if you look closer, only two of those losses were by more than eight points. They are the highest scoring team in the league, with four players averaging double figures, and also lead the conference in rebounding. If they can get into a game where the score is in the 80's or 90's, the Panthers can get a win. Charleston Southern is 4-9 in their last 13 games after starting out 4-0 in the Big South. They are a very deep team, but don't really have much firepower on offense. A low-scoring affair is ideal for them, as they are third in the conference in scoring defense. Radford is another team that needs to heat up in order to make a run. They do have the weapons on offense to do that, though, with Whit Holcolm-Faye and Chris Oliver both averaging over 15 points per game. Led by those two, the Highlanders are second in the league in scoring. Without a third player providing scoring, Radford is going to be hard-pressed to beat Birmingham Southern. Coastal Carolina has the league's leading scorer in Pele Paelay, but have lost four of their past five. Jack Leasure is another solid scoring option, putting in 14 a game. They are, however, the only team to beat Winthrop this season.
Prediction: Winthrop should win this tournament easily. Most of the teams are not hot right now, and are not looking like very attractive sleeper picks. If I had to choose one team to possibly make a run, though, Birmingham Southern looks like a solid choice.

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