Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Big South Conference Preview


The Big South Conference race was never really in doubt, although it technically came down to the final week. Preseason favorite Winthrop went 14-0, but they were only up two games on High Point with two games left. However, the Eagles overcame a halftime deficit to knock off the Panthers. High Point finished 11-3, but no other team finished more than one game over .500. In the conference tournament, Winthrop made the finals and faced off against VMI, who finished sixth in the conference but made an improbable run to the title game. The Eagles had trouble throughout the game with Keydets’ unpredictable style of play, but pulled out the win late. Winthrop then knocked off Notre Dame in the first-round of the NCAA Tournament before succumbing to Oregon in the second round. Will the Eagles actually lose a conference game this season?

Favorite: Winthrop has been the favorite for the past several years, mainly for the fact they have won three straight conference titles and seven of the last nine. They might not be as invincible this year, though. Granted, the Eagles return the best backcourt in the conference in Chris Gaynor and Michael Jenkins, but they also lose three starters, including Torrell Martin and Craig Bradshaw, as well as their coach, Gregg Marshall. As for the personnel they do have, Gaynor is the best point guard in the league, while Jenkins is a terrific shooter who can really score. Up front, Taj McCullough is primed for a break-out season. Antwon Harris will fight for a starting spot on the wing, and JC transfer Andy Buechert will likely start next to McCullough. High Point is the best bet to knock Winthrop off its perch. The Panthers are led by the best player in the conference, forward Arizona Reid. He averaged 21 points and almost 10 rebounds per game last year. Providing balance on the perimeter is Mike Jefferson, a very good point guard, and Eugene Harris. Flanking Reid in the frontcourt is forward Jerald Minnis and center Cruz Daniels.

Contenders: Coastal Carolina took a step back last season, going only .500 after winning 20 games two seasons ago. The Chanticleers have a terrific backcourt in all-conference guard Jack Leasure and point guard Joshua Mack. Leasure can score from the perimeter, while Mack was the league’s Freshman of the Year last season. Everage Richardson rounds out the three-guard attack. Joseph Harris leads the way up front, but Coastal needs someone else to step up. Liberty loses a great wing tandem in Larry Blair and Dwight Brewington, but has the pieces to contend. The frontcourt duo of Alex McLean, a double-double threat every night, and Anthony Smith, a lockdown defender, anchors the Flames. Rell Porter and Tyler Baker also return up front. In the backcourt, Virginia transfer T.J. Bannister will step right in at the point, with B.J. Jenkins also likely starting.

Sleepers: VMI is hoping to carry over the momentum it gained from its run to the conference title game. With Reggie Williams returning, anything is possible. The 6-5 forward led the country in scoring at over 28 per game, and was also near the top of the conference in rebounding and assists. He is joined on the wings by twins Chavis and Travis Holmes. Chavis is a very good three-point shooter who put up more than 19 points per game last season. Travis was the conference’s best defender last season, picking up 3.4 steals per game and also scoring 15 ppg. Adam Lenon returns at the point. Freshman Christian Hunter could push him, though. Willie Bell and freshman Hunter Houston anchor the frontcourt. UNC-Asheville is led by one of the better backcourts in the league in seniors Bryan Smithson and K.J. Garland. Smithson is a good scorer and a solid defender, while Garland is a very good point guard. Donovan Jones, Sean Smith, and Reid Augst round out the perimeter group. Up front, Vincent James and 7-7 Kenny George will start.

Rounding out the Pack: Charleston Southern went only 2-12 last season, but returns three starters and could make a move. Chris Moore should be healthy this season after missing the latter portion of last year due to injury. Shelton Carter and freshman Tovi Bailey will also likely start on the perimeter. The frontcourt trio of Vernon Huger, Brandon Macklin, and Giedrus Knysas is solid, but will have to fight off East Carolina transfer Quinton Goods for time. Radford loses all-league forward Chris Oliver, but has three starters back on the perimeter. Amir Johnson is quick and can score and distribute. Kenny Thomas can get to the basket, while Martell McDuffy is very good defensively. Joey Lynch-Flohr and Duane Ricks return up front.

Prediction: This season will feature a tighter race than last season, when Winthrop ran away with the conference title from Day One. However, I still expect the Eagles to win the conference over High Point by a couple of games. Chris Gaynor simply doesn’t lose games, and Michael Jenkins and Taj McCullough are two of the best at their respective positions. Arizona Reid will help keep High Point in contention, and it will be interesting to see if VMI can carry over its tournament success.

Player of the Year: Arizona Reid, F, High Point

All-Conference Team:
G- Michael Jenkins, Winthrop
G- Jack Leasure, Coastal Carolina
F- Reggie Williams, VMI
F- Arizona Reid, High Point
F- Alex McLean, Liberty

Second Team:
G- Chris Gaynor, Winthrop
G- Mike Jefferson, High Point
G- Travis Holmes, VMI
G- Bryan Smithson, UNC-Asheville
G- Chavis Holmes, VMI

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