2013-14 Mid-Major Conference Preview: Big South

USA TODAY Sports

The Liberty Flames had an unexpected run to the Big South championship a year ago. Will the Flames repeat or will someone else rise to the top in the twelve team Big South?

Liberty shocked the Big South after an unexpected tournament run in 2013 that culminated in a Big South Championship win over Charleston Southern. A solid core returns for the conference in the 2013-14 season but four of the conferences twelve teams will sport new head coaches. Also this will be the final year of the six team division structure as VMI will head back to the Southern Conference in 2014-15. Who has what it takes to take home the championship in Myrtle Beach?

NORTH DIVISION

1. High Point Panthers
Last Year:
17-14 (12-4), 1st in North Division, CIT 1st Round
Departures: Corey Law (6 ppg), Branimir Mikulic (3 ppg), Jairus Simms (2 ppg), Landon Harris (1 ppg), Justin Cheek (Transfer, 2 ppg)
Top Returners: John Brown (16 ppg), Allan Chaney (15 ppg), Adam Weary (10 ppg)

Scott Cherry got an early gift this offseason when the NCAA granted former Florida top recruit and Virginia Tech transfer Allan Chaney another year to play basketball. Chaney battled heart conditions for years in Gainesville and Blacksburg and was finally cleared to play for the Panthers a year ago where he averaged 15 points and 8 rebounds per game. Simply put, Chaney has a body that no one can match in the Big South and when he combines with reigning Freshman of the Year, John Brown, the Panthers far and away have the best frontcourt in the league. Brown averaged 16 points and 6 rebounds his freshman campaign, but an injury ended his season early and he missed the conference tournament.

The two biggest question marks for the Panthers are Cherry's coaching and the team's guard play. Cherry seems to have knack for not coming through in big games and the postseason; but a bigger concern has to be the Panther backcourt. Adam Weary was a nice addition a year ago but the Panthers lack a true, traditional point guard beyond walk-on Tre Duncan (1.1 ppg) and incoming freshman Jorge Perez-Laham. HPU lacks a floor general to match their formidable big men.

2. Liberty Flames
Last Year:
15-21 (6-10), 5th in North, Big South Tournament Champion, NCAA 1st Round
Departures: Tavares Speaks (13 ppg), Larry Taylor (TR)
Top Returners: John Caleb Sanders (14 ppg), Davon Marshall (14 ppg), Antwan Burrus (11 ppg)

Liberty didn't win a Division I game until New Years Eve last season, but Dale Layer's squad caught fire in Myrtle Beach to capture the Big South Tournament. It's unclear what the Flames will bring to the table in 2013-14, but they do have a veteran laden squad that could once again cause trouble in the conference. JC Sanders and Davon Marshall finally started to click as a backcourt tandem towards the end of the season. Sanders can slash and distribute the basketball, while Marshall has become the conference's premier 3-point threat. Tavares Speaks was a big part of the Flames tourney run but Antwan Burris, who sat out last year with a injury, should pick up the slack.

What really separates the Flames is their frontcourt rotation. Not a single member of the rotation stands out, but the Flames can throw bodies at you all night with Joel Vander Pol, Andrew Smith, JR Coronado, Tomasz Gielo, and Sommy Ogukwe (all are 6-7 or taller). If the Flames can pick up where they left off, then it might be bad news for the rest of the Big South.

3. Radford Highlanders
Last Year:
13-19 (7-9), 4th in North
Departures: Blake Smith (5 ppg)
Top Returners: Javonte Green (15 ppg), RJ Price (14 ppg)

Radford returns pretty much everyone off a squad that featured eight freshmen and four sophomores a year ago. Mike Jones, a former VCU assistant, has been slowly rebuilding the program after Brad Greenberg left in controversy. The Highlanders are ready to take the next step, but Jones squad has yet to be consistent and has lacked a defensive identity at times. Leading the way this year will be forward Javonte Green and talented guards RJ Price and Ya Ya Anderson. After winning 24 games the past three years combined, is it finally time for the Highlanders to have their first winning season in the Mike Jones era?

4. VMI Keydets
Last Year:
14-17 (8-8), 3rd in North
Departures: Stan Okoye (21 ppg), Nick Gore (5 ppg), Joe Carr (2 ppg), Dorian Albritton (TR, 4 ppg), Gavin Stephenson (TR, 2 ppg)
Top Returners: DJ Covington (15 ppg), Rodney Glasgow (12 ppg)

To say the Keydets were hit hard would be an understatement. Big South Player of the Year and one the nation's most talented scorers, Stan Okoye is gone, but VMI should be able to weather the storm in their last season of Big South play. The key to a successful season for recently extended Duggar Baucom are seniors DJ Covington and Rodney Glasgow. Covington is the reigning Big South Defensive Player of the Year and has also become a force in the offensive paint. Glasgow has developed into one the conference's best point guards averaging 12 points per game and nearly 5 assists a year ago. The Keydets have never won a Big South title, could their last year be the one?

5. Longwood Lancers
Last Year:
8-25 (4-12), 6th in North
Departures: Michael Kessens (TR, 14 ppg), Nik Brown (9 ppg), Frank Holloway (TR), Anthony Taylor (TR), Stephen Shockley (1 ppg), Kirk Staine (TR)
Top Returners: Tristan Carey (16 ppg), Jeylani Dublin (10 ppg)

Former Cleveland State assistant Jayson Gee takes over for the Lancers. Gee is tasked with changing the culture of a program that only has one winning season since transitioning to Division I in 2004-05. Gee has promised pressure defense and means business, which was evident when he wore fatigues to the Lancers first summer practice. Freshman phenom Michael Kessens has transferred to Alabama, but it's not all bad news for the first year head coach.

Gee inherits a roster with some talent, especially senior TT Carey. Carey has developed into one of the conference's premier scorers and even had a 41-point performance against Radford a year ago. Lucas Woodhouse didn't get to start consistently until late January for the Lancers, but once he did he ended up leading the conference in assists in league play and set freshman assists records at Longwood. Gee will add nine newcomers to go along with the solid core of Carey, Woodhouse, David Robinson, and Jeylani Dublin.

6. Campbell Camels
Last Year:
13-20 (7-9), 3rd in North
Departures: Darren White (22 ppg), Trey Freeman (TR, 14 ppg), Darian Hooker (10 ppg)
Top Returners: Marvelle Harris (8 ppg), Reco McCarter (8 ppg)

Kevin McGheehan comes down from Richmond to take over in Buies Creek. McGheehan will install Chris Mooney's Princeton offense for Campbell and he'll have to do it without star point guard Trey Freeman who transferred to Old Dominion. Expect growing pains for the Camels as McGheehan's roster lacks scorers and has players who, frankly, don't fit his system. As a point of reference, Richmond had to suffer through two losing seasons before Mooney turned the Spiders into a perennial winner. Richmond transfer Luke Moyer could help some of the Camels learn the system and help is on the way next year with Central Florida transfer Rod Days.

SOUTH DIVISION

1. Charleston Southern Buccaneers
Last Year:
19-13 (12-4), 1st in South, NIT 1st Round
Departures: Mathiang Muo (11 ppg), Jeremy Sexton (10 ppg)
Top Returners: Saah Nimley (16 ppg), Arlon Harper (15 ppg)

Barclay Radebaugh had far and away the best team going into the Big South Tournament, but the Bucs just went cold in their match up with Liberty in the finals. Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper make up one of the nation's most dynamic backcourts and the scary thing for Big South fans is that these guys still have two years left. Losing Mathiang Muo and Jeremy Sexton hurts but Allie Fullah, Cedrick Bowen, and Paul Gombwer should fill the void nicely. Freshman Bakari Copeland should challenge for a strong spot in the rotation as well, the 6'5 guard turned down other offers from eight other Division I programs.

2. Winthrop Eagles
Last Year:
14-17 (6-10)
Departures: Gideon Gamble (10 ppg), Shola Diop (2 ppg), Reggie King (2 ppg), Steve Johnson (TR, 4 ppg)
Top Returners: Derrick Henry (11 ppg), Joab Jerome (11 ppg), Andre Smith (9 ppg)

Winthrop is my surprise pick in the Big South this year. Head coach Pat Kelsey is looking to regain Gregg Marshall's glory days and he's doing it with intense energy. Winthrop's 14 wins last year was higher than three of the last four years under Randy Peele. Winthrop even experienced some success in the Big South Tournament knocking off Radford and nearly beating the number one seed, Charleston Southern. Derrick Henry and Joab Jerome return as a solid scoring tandem and Kelsey brings in a slew of solid freshman, including Josh Davenport who turned down offers from Ohio, Kent State, and St. Bonaventure to come to Rock Hill. The biggest weakness for Winthrop is its frontcourt. Kelsey returns Larry Brown and James Bourne, Brown lead the team in rebounds a year ago (5.7 rpg) and Bourne averaged 6 points and 4 rebounds a year ago, and adds freshmen Jarad Scott and Duby Okeke.

3. Gardner-Webb Bulldogs
Last Year:
21-13 (11-5), 2nd in South, 1st Round CIT
Departures: Tashan Newsome (14 ppg), Kevin Hartley (10 ppg), Max Landis (TR, 8 ppg)
Top Returners: Donta Harper (13 ppg), Tyler Strange (6 ppg)

Chris Holtmann shocked the Big South when he bolted Gardner-Webb late this offseason to become an assistant at Butler. Gardner-Webb scrambled and tabbed East Carolina assistant Tim Craft to take over in Boiling Springs. Gardner-Webb could have been a preseason favorite for many this year, but losing Holtmann really hurts. Leading scorer Tashan Newsome is also gone and starting guard Max Landis transferred to IPFW. Stepping in for Landis will be Mount St. Mary's transfer Josh Castellanos and junior Tyler Strange who averaged 6 points and 4 assists a year ago. The Bulldogs should also get a jolt from Texas A&M transfer Naji Hibbert, the Baltimore native was a highly touted prospect coming out of high school. Finally, junior Donta Harper has developed into one of the better scorers in the conference.

4. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Last Year:
14-15 (9-7), 4th in South
Departures: Anthony Raffa (19 ppg), Kierre Greenwood (13 ppg), Charles Ashford (3 ppg), Bisi Addey (1 ppg), Tre'von James (TR, 1 ppg)
Top Returners: Warren Gillis (10 ppg), El Hadji Ndieguene (6 ppg), Michel Enanga (6 ppg)

Cliff Ellis' squad just can't seem to get over the hump in postseason play. The Chants lost in the first round of the Big South Tournament -- on their home court -- and they also lost their top scorer Anthony Raffa and a great point guard in Kierre Greenwood. Coastal will now rely on the scoring of Warren Gillis and the continual development of forward Michael Enanga to carry the load. To replace Greenwood, Ellis has grabbed a one year stop gap in South Carolina transfer Eric Smith. Smith averaged 6 points and 3 assists for the Gamecocks a year ago. The Chants also picked a walk-on transfer from Iowa State Aaron Law and NEC Freshman of the Year Shivaughn Wiggins will join the fray in 2014-15. The Chants will have a lot of new pieces this year, so how well they do may depend on how quickly they can mesh.

5. UNC Asheville Bulldogs
Last Year:
16-16 (10-6), 3rd in South
Departures: Jeremy Atkinson (18 ppg), Keith Hornsby (TR, 15 ppg), Jon Nwannunu (7 ppg)
Top Returners: Trent Meyer (10 ppg), Will Weeks (9 ppg), DJ Cunningham (8 ppg)

It was not a good end of the season for the two-time defending Big South champs a year ago. Asheville was bounced by Longwood in the first round of the tournament and then legendary coach Eddie Biedenbach left town for an early retirement gig as an assistant at UNC Wilmington. Leading scorer Jeremy Atkinson graduated and star guard Keith Hornsby also left Asheville for LSU. Former Biedenbach assistant Nick McDevitt takes over and will have an uphill climb after losing so much talent. McDevitt does have some pieces in Trent Meyer and DJ Cunningham, and also has Will Weeks who showed a lot as a freshman a year ago. McDevitt will get a baptism by fire in his first year, as the Bulldogs open up at Kentucky.

6. Presbyterian Blue Hose
Last Year:
8-24 (4-12), 6th in South
Departures: Khalid Mutakabbir (16 ppg), Ryan Hargrave (4 ppg), Matt Citron (TR, 1 ppg), Eric Washington (TR, 9 ppg), Jarvis Thibodeaux (TR, 1 ppg), Joshua Clyburn (TR 10 ppg)
Top Returner: Jordan Downing (13 ppg)

Another year, same story for Gregg Nibbert and the Blue Hose. Presbyterian is still searching for their first winning season as a Division I school and it has become a perennial doormat in the Big South. It won't get any easier for Nibbert this year as leading scorer Khalid Mutakabbir has moved on and Eric Washington, who lead the conference in assists a year ago, has transferred to Miami (OH). It's not all bad news though in Clinton, South Carolina. Overall, PC was a young team a year ago and Jordan Downing is a solid building block for a successful season. Also, Nibbert was able to sign highly touted shooting guard Reggie Dillard, who turned down offers from VCU, Tulane, and UNC-Greensboro. If Dillard lives up to the hype then he could be an early candidate for Big South Freshman of the Year.

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