Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Big South Conference Tournament Preview

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The Big South Conference race was a two-team affair all season long – no one else was much of a factor down the stretch. UNC-Asheville got off to a hot start, going 7-0 to begin the conference season, but an ensuing four-game losing streak opened the door. Familiar face Winthrop stepped into that void, taking a one-game lead into the season finale. However, Asheville went into Rock Hill and knocked off the Eagles to complete a season sweep and get the top-seed – and homecourt advantage – for the conference tournament.

Favorite: UNC-Asheville likely got rid of its losing ways with the aforementioned four-game losing streak – the Bulldogs have won three in a row heading into the conference tournament. They have the league’s most unguardable player in the 7-7 Kenny George, but they key is the outstanding backcourt of Bryan Smithson and K.J. Garland. Vincent James and Reid Augst are also double-figure scorers. UNCA is extremely efficient from inside the arc, at both ends of the floor.

Contender: Winthrop
looked like it was going to wrap up the regular-season title on the final day of the season, but a double-digit loss to UNC-Asheville cost them homecourt advantage. Prior to that game, the Eagles had won five consecutive league games. The experienced backcourt of Chris Gaynor and Michael Jenkins gives them an edge over most teams, while Taj McCullough is very good down low. The Eagles are phenomenal defensively and can shoot the three.

Sleepers: High Point was supposed to be the team to break Winthrop’s stranglehold on the Big South, but struggles late in the season ended those hopes. However, the Panthers have won two in a row and have arguably the best player in the league in Arizona Reid, who averages over 24 points and 11 rebounds per game. Mike Jefferson is an outstanding distributor who can also score. VMI is always a difficult match-up because of the high tempo it plays at. Furthermore, the fact the Keydets made a run to the finals last year shows how tough they can be on short notice. Reggie Williams, who averages nearly 28 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game, is one of the best players in the country, while Chavis and Travis Holmes are also big-time scorers. They force turnovers and get to the basket.

Prediction: The automatic bid is likely going to come down to the two teams that faced off in the regular-season finale – UNC-Asheville and Winthrop. UNCA won both meetings this season, getting the all-important homecourt advantage. The Bulldogs had a four-game losing streak earlier this season, but Kenny George played just 11 minutes in those contests; he should be back and ready to dominate. The balance and versatility that UNCA has will be the difference – as well as the homecourt advantage.

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