In each of the last four seasons, High Point has had at least a share of the regular-season title. This year might be end of that streak though.
With the departure of perennial contender Coastal Carolina to the Sun Belt Conference, Winthrop should be the team to beat this year. The rest of the league is up for grabs, but here is how the teams stack up going into the year.
Every conference title game in the last three years has featured Winthrop. Unfortunately, Winthrop lost every single one. This year, Pat Kelsey and the Eagles go into the season as the favorites to solve their title game woes.
Led by scoring machine Keon Johnson, Winthrop will again possess a high-powered offense. Xavier Cooks combines with Johnson to form the best 1-2 punch in the league, and should put Winthrop in a familiar position when March rolls around.
In Ritchie McKay’s first year at Liberty, he improved their conference record from 2-16 to 10-8. The Flames were able to keep games close thanks to a tough pack-line defense, and should improve on the offensive end this year as players get more acclimated to McKay’s system. John Dawson was their best player in conference play after transferring from Marquette, and will compete for Conference Player of the Year.
3. UNC Asheville
The defending champions are going to have replace the production of Dylan Smith (Arizona) and Dwayne Sutton (Louisville) if they hope to make a return to the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs will rely on juniors Kevin Vannatta and Ahmad Thomas to play the roles of go-to guys. UNC Asheville always does their best work in March, so it’s a safe bet that Nicholas McDevitt will have his team ready to strike if the opportunity presents itself.
Looking at their roster, Gardner-Webb has a surplus of guards and shortage of big men. Luckily, one of the big men is the league’s best: Tyrell Nelson. He’s a consistent double-double threat, and is the centerpiece of everything the Runnin’ Bulldogs want to do. Laquincy Rideau will continue to hound opposing guards on defense, and Brandon Miller is expected to make the leap into a solid all-around player.
5. High Point
Unfortunately, some good runs have to come to an end. With the graduation of two-time Conference Player of the Year John Brown, High Point will have to find a new source of buckets. Miles Bowman gave a good performance in the conference tournament, and will likely be thrust into the role of go-to guy. It’s not a total reset, but the Panthers are likely to take a step back this season.
6. Charleston Southern
When a team finishes in last place in the conference, it’s hard to find reasons for optimism. For Charleston Southern, the reason was the emergence of point guard Armel Potter. He’s the biggest variable to the Bucs’ success this year. If he’s good, then they should be able to move up from the league’s cellar. Javis Howard should provide a nice running mate for Potter, and could form a nice inside-out combo.
Longwood might be due for another rough season. Their rock in the middle, Lotanna Nwogbo, graduated and won’t be there to man the paint. To compensate for this, coach Jayson Gee is probably going to take the brakes off of the offense and push the tempo. Darrion Allen will take the reins, but the team’s success will come down to their effectiveness on the defensive side of the ball.
One of the conference’s most consistent teams is in for a rebuilding year. Radford’s team is young, but might have some promise down the road. Ed Polite Jr. was one of the league’s best freshman last year, and Mike Jones is bringing in solid players from both the junior college and high school ranks. If the newcomers like Christian Bradford and Carlik Jones are as good as advertised, the Highlanders can find themselves in the middle of the pack.
If you’re in search of buckets, look no further than Campbell’s Chris Clemons (say that five times fast). The freshman can fill it up with the best of them, but unfortunately doesn’t have much help. The Camels (great nickname btw) struggled on defense and on the glass last year. If they still can’t get stops, they might be due for another season at the bottom of the standings.
DeSean Murray’s decision to transfer to Auburn was a punch in the gut to Gregg Nibert and the program. Losing a potential Player of the Year is a tough blow to any program, but especially so when it’s to a team void of talent like Presbyterian. Look for Nibert to see if Reggie Dillard can pick up the scoring slack, and if Austin Venable can be a consistent performer in the middle.