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Big South Preseason Power Rankings: Is the conference a three-team race?

UNC Asheville leads the way.

NCAA Basketball: NC-Asheville at Kansas Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

UNC Asheville and Winthrop appeared to be on a collision course to compete for the Big South championship in 2016-17 until Campbell’s Chris Clemons and his 51-point night got in the way and knocked the Bulldogs out. Winthrop ultimately captured the conference title, and this season, it looks like those same three schools will be at the top.

The gap, however, isn’t as wide as one might think. The Big South is full of veteran teams, upsets are bound to occur, the competition will be fierce, and another strong year is set to commence.

10. Presbyterian Blue Hose

The process is ongoing for the Blue Hose to move into the mid-to-upper tier of the Big South. With Dustin Kerns taking over as head coach, it will take time to see his impact, so fans should stay patient. Sophomore guard Jo’Vontae Millner, a member of the 2017 Big South all-freshman team, highlights the roster. Millner averaged a team-high 10.8 points in his freshmen campaign while shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor. If he stays healthy, Millner could be the spark this team needs.

The Blue Hose do have some veterans returning, particularly in the backcourt. Senior Reggie Dillard (9.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.5 apg) is a versatile guard who will give Kerns flexibility with his lineup. He can play as an undersized forward or set things up as a floor general. Senior Davon Bell, a 5’11 point guard, played in just seven games due to a knee injury last season. His experience is invaluable to the success of the Blue Hose.

9. Longwood Lancers

Longwood suffered unimaginable circumstances last season, as injuries slashed the roster to just six players by the end of the year. A (hopefully) healthy team should provide some hope to the Lancer faithful. Last year, players were forced to play out of their natural positions, but that experience gives Longwood the potential to play many styles. Isaiah Walton is one of those who had to fill in at point guard, but with redshirt freshman Juan Munoz back from injury, Walton can explore all over the court. The perimeter has athletes with length, which can improve a defense ranked second-to-last in the Big South, according to KenPom. Sophomore Jashaun Smith will be the defensive anchor, as he can lock down on the perimeter. Offensively, a couple of transfers from Mount St. Mary’s gives them some explosiveness. B.K. Ashe brings his 13.8 points per game and Charles Glover knows how to win, having played on an NCAA Tournament team last season.

Longwood can have a much-improved year, but in order for that to happen, its front court must be somewhat productive, freshmen Kamil Chapman and Jordan Cintron must adjust to the college game, and Jahleem Montague must be a force.

8. Charleston Southern Buccaneers

Christian Keeling is a name you need to know. The Big South all-freshman selection led the Bucs with 17.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game and was the only freshman in the nation to lead his team in both categories. He is highly skilled offensively and is equipped with an arsenal of scoring weapons; he can go off the bounce, get to the mid-range, run the floor, and step out behind the arc.

The question for coach Barclay Radebaugh is if his Bucs have enough to go along with Keeling’s dynamic game. This is still a young team with nine underclassmen. Charleston Southern will need instant contributions from stand-out freshmen Deontaye Buskey and Sean Price. The heart and soul of the Bucs will come from seniors Cortez Mitchell and Javis Howard. It will be interesting to see how Mitchell develops as he transitions to point guard. With the Bucs thin in the front court, Howard will be called upon to post big numbers in the paint while continuing to dominate the boards.

7. High Point Panthers

High Point is possibly the most intriguing team in the league this season. The Panthers return four starters, add some depth with transfers who sat out last season, and welcome some size with their freshman class. There is potential for the Panthers to have a dynamic, explosive offense, but will they mesh?

There is no doubt Scott Cherry has a solid foundation with Andre Fox, Ricky Madison, Jamal Wright, and Austin White. With the exception of Madison, all are perimeter-oriented. Sophomore transfers Jahaad Proctor and Brandonn Kamga, along with freshman Denny Slay add to that backcourt depth. It will be interesting to see how High Point will manage the logjam, but depth is a good problem to have. If the perimeter is willing to be unselfish, this can be a fruitful situation.

High Point will have to find some rim protection as most of the players anticipated to play quality minutes are undersized. Look for senior Jordan Whitehead to shoulder some of the responsibility. Transfer Sam Berlin, a 6’10 center, along with Cliff Thomas, Jr., Luke Vargo, and Caden Sanchez will form something of a front-court-by-committee.

6. Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs

The loss of LaQuincy Rideau undoubtedly hurts what Gardner-Webb was piecing together. Yet there is little cause to panic, because the Runnin’ Bulldogs have a three-headed monster to lead their attack. All-Big South honorable mention junior David Efianayi averaged 12.6 points per game last season and is an excellent slasher. Joining Efianayi on the perimeter will be seniors Jamaal Robateau and Liam O’Reilly. The two guards can stretch the defense with their ability to shoot from three, compete defensively, and provide stability with their experience.

For Gardner-Webb to take the next step, 6’6 junior DJ Laster will have to expand his game. He has excellent footwork and a soft touch from mid-range in. He is a matchup nightmare as he can play with his back to the basket, but possesses the ability to step out and handle on the perimeter against bigger forwards. Doubling his production would make the Bulldogs a dangerous team.

5. Radford Highlanders

If rough, rugged, and tough in the front court is your brand of basketball, look no further than Radford, led by Player of the Year candidate Ed Polite, Jr. A man-child on the glass, Polite, Jr. is a force that the Highlanders will play through. Coach Mike Jones’ Highlanders have all five starters returning, as well. Alongside Polite, Jr., the physical Randy Phillips should be improved offensively, adding to his paint-protector role.

The Highlanders have a plethora of guards that should allow them to increase the tempo, use their depth, create havoc defensively, and be more efficient on the perimeter. Senior Justin Cousin must become a more consistent shooter. When he is on, the Highlanders can roll offensively. The same goes for Caleb Tanner, another shooter with the opportunity to be a critical piece. Guard play is the key for Radford; it must defend at a higher level and lighten the load for the front court.

4. Winthrop Eagles

Pat Kelsey continues to replenish the well at Winthrop. That well may not be as plentiful this upcoming season, but it’s plenty to give the Eagles another shot at a Big South title. Senior Xavier Cooks takes control of Winthrop coming off his first-team All-Big South selection last season. Look for Cooks to have a monster year, as he only got better over the summer while playing for Australia in the World University Games.

Depth for the Eagles might be the biggest question. They are only returning two starters, but sixth man Anders Broman played valuable minutes last year. Bjorn Broman, the other returning starter, will most likely be asked to play an increased role offensively to help with scoring production. Thankfully, it won’t be up to the Broman brothers alone to make up for the graduation of Keon Johnson. Transfers and incoming freshmen seem poised to help push the Eagles to a successful year. Keep an eye on freshman Kyle Zunic — he has a shot at Big South Freshman of the Year.

3. Liberty Flames

Is this the season Liberty takes the crown? Four starters return from a team that won 14 games in conference, just behind Winthrop and UNC Asheville. This was done without star guard Caleb Homesley, who was having an outstanding season before he tore his ACL. Liberty had one of the top defenses in the Big South and should only get better behind the pack-line scheme employed by Ritchie McKay. So what’s the issue here?

The perimeter is loaded and should only improve with Homesley’s return, mixed with Ryan Kemrite, Lovell Cabbil and Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz. The front court, however, suffered a major blow. A late transfer from sophomore Brock Gardner made it even more thin up front. Myo Baxter-Bell will put up numbers, but Ezra Talbert and some newcomers will have to produce in the post in order for Liberty to take that next step.

2. Campbell Fighting Camels

Call me crazy, but I believe the Campbell Camels’ postseason success was only the beginning for this group. An improved defense during the second half of the season and an offense with shooters and scorers surrounding prolific junior Chris Clemons makes for a confident coach Kevin McGeehan.

A lack of depth will be a challenge, but the balance of youth and experience within the top seven or eight is a bright spot. Like many other teams in the Big South, having those returners provides continuity for the Camels. This is particularly important as they rely heavily on production from their starters. A breakout season from sharpshooter Cory Gensler and consistent double-doubles from Andrew Eudy can give Campbell a dangerous offensive unit. They will be balanced and consistent at forward with redshirt senior Shane Whitfield’s versatility.

1. UNC Asheville Bulldogs

The best combination of perimeter guards and wings resides in the mountains of Asheville, N.C. Last season’s Big South Freshman of the Year and first-team All-Big South sophomore Macio Teague is poised to have another outstanding season. Big South Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-Big South senior Ahmad Thomas is the front-runner for Player of the Year. Add in the savvy senior Kevin Vannatta, along with senior Raekwon Miller, and you have your hands full defending the perimeter.

Nick McDevitt brought in what could be an amazing freshmen class on offense. If they adjust to the game at the Division I level, it will be challenging to slow down the offensive attack. The Bulldogs will be sound defensively and rely on senior Alec Wnuk to man the low post. The veteran leadership combined with basketball I.Q. have the Bulldogs as the favorite to avenge that Big South Tournament loss to Campbell and return to the NCAA Tournament.