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Big South Tournament Primer: Is the fourth time the charm for Winthrop?

Winthrop hosts, but defending champs UNC Asheville lurk.

NCAA Basketball: Winthrop at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The Big South regular season offered a plethora of story lines, dynamic players both inside and outside, and interesting match ups. League play was a back and forth battle between Winthrop and UNC Asheville (which featured two outstanding battles between the two teams on national television), and even Liberty joined the fray, owning a share of first place going into the final Saturday of the season.

The tournament in Rock Hill should be a microcosm of the regular season.

Tournament format

Things have changed this year with Coastal Carolina’s exit to the Sun Belt. First round games will be played at the home of the higher seed, while quarter and semifinal games will be held at top-seeded Winthrop’s Winthrop Coliseum in Rock Hill, SC. Should Winthrop fail to advance to the finals, the game will be held at the gym of the highest remaining seed.

How to watch

Both first round games will be streamed on the Big South Network. Quarterfinal and semifinal action will be streamed via ESPN3, while the championship game will be televised on ESPN in addition to streaming on ESPN3.

First Round, Tues Feb 28:

(10) Presbyterian at (7) Campbell, 7PM ET

(9) Longwood at (8) Charleston Southern, 7PM ET

Quarterfinals, Thurs March 2:

(2) UNC Asheville vs 7/10 winner, 1PM ET

(3) Liberty vs (6) Radford, 3PM ET

8/9 winner at (1) Winthrop, 7PM ET

(4) Gardner-Webb vs (5) High Point, 9PM ET

Semifinal, Fri March 3, 6PM and 8PM ET

Championship, Sun March 5, 1PM ET

3 Things to watch

  1. Can top seeded Winthrop finally breakthrough and return to the Dance after three straight losses in the Big South title game?

Winthrop has suffered heartbreak in the Big South championship game three years in a row (twice to now-departed Coastal Carolina and last year to UNC Asheville), but return a veteran cast led by 5’7 scoring dynamo Keon Johnson. The Eagles are experienced, hungry, and earned homecourt throughout. Anything short of cutting down the nets on March 5 will be considered a disappointment by this team. Winthrop’s deep and talented roster starts with Big South POY Johnson, but the supporting cast is outstanding. 6’8 do-everything “point forward” Xavier Cooks is a matchup nightmare for anyone. Josh Davenport and Rod Perkins represent an defense/offense combo, respectively, on the wings. Duby Okeke is a freakishly athletic rim protector, and the Broman brothers can fire away from outside. In short, Winthrop has the bases covered and they’re at home. This should be their year.

2. Can defending champ UNC Asheville crash the party in Rock Hill and repeat as Big South champs?

Without question. Nic McDevitt did an outstanding job with this team after having his roster was raided by high majors in the offseason. Thus, McDevitt was rewarded with Coach of the Year honors. The Bulldogs are the league’s most efficient offense and defense per KenPom, but the defensive end is where they really hang their hat. Led by Defensive Player of the Year Ahmad Thomas, the Bulldogs are relentless on the ball and generate a lot of offense off turnovers. If you’re handling the basketball against UNCA, you’re going to have a defender in your jersey. With McDevitt striking recruiting gold once again with Freshman of the Year MaCio Teague, the Bulldogs haven’t missed a beat offensively. Additionally, a supporting cast of upperclassmen who have been here and done this make UNCA and incredibly dangerous team. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to see a third tilt between Winthrop and UNCA after last year and the two epic regular season contests this year?

3. Is there a dark horse that can emerge from the non Winthrop/UNC Asheville field?

It seems fairly unlikely, but Ritchie McKay has done an outstanding job at Liberty (all while losing Caleb Homesley early to injury), a program that was in disarray upon his return. He’s installed a pack line defense, which can always be tricky to prepare for on short rest even if you’ve seen it several times. Unfortunately the Flames went 0-4 against Winthrop and UNCA this year, their only four losses in league play.

No. 4 seed Gardner-Webb offers some intrigue with Laquincy Rideau running the show, a legit big man in Tyrell Nelson, and a big time shooter in wing Jamaal Robateau. Rideau is one of the most impressive ball hawks in the country, and can change a game with his defense (especially if the officiating is loose). GWU played Winthrop close both meetings and split with UNCA, but has No. 5 seed High Point first, a team that used a lot of zone looks to give GWU’s downhill attacking offense fits.

Prediction

Flipped a coin and it landed on heads, so I’ll go with Winthrop over UNC Asheville