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Big South Tournament preview: Is it finally time for Campbell and Chris Clemons?

The scoring dynamo will try to lift the Camels to their second NCAA Tournament appearance in program history.

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NCAA Basketball: Campbell at Penn State Linsey Fagan-USA TODAY Sports

The story of the 2018-19 Big South Tournament is, without a doubt, Chris Clemons. That isn’t to say there aren’t intriguing story lines throughout the league or even on Clemons’ own team, which won its first regular season title in nearly 10 years.

But oversimplifying and boiling down the marquee to one player makes sense, since Clemons is no ordinary player. With 3,136 career points, the senior guard sits just 14 points shy of surpassing Doug McDermott for fifth all-time in NCAA history. None of those points, however, have been scored on the sport’s grandest stage.

Clemons and the 12-4 Camels hold the No. 1 seed after beating Radford last Saturday, creating a manageable path to vault the star further into the national spotlight. But while that’s a clean narrative, it’s obviously not one that the rest of the league will lay down and let happen. Eight teams won at least nine Big South games this season, which should make for a compelling battle for the automatic bid.

Bracket

Big South Conference

Schedule

First Round (Tue., March 5)

ESPN3 will stream all three games.

Game 1: No. 9 Longwood at No. 8 Hampton, 7 p.m.

Game 2: No. 10 UNC Asheville at No. 7 Presbyterian, 7 p.m.

Game 3: No. 11 USC Upstate at No. 6 Charleston Southern, 7 p.m.

Quarterfinals (Thu., March 7)

ESPN3 will stream all four games.

Game 3: Game 2 Winner vs. No. 2 Radford, 12 p.m.

Game 4: Game 3 Winner vs. No. 3 Winthrop, approx. 2:30 p.m.

Game 5: Game 1 Winner at No. 1 Campbell, 6 p.m.

Game 6: No. 5 High Point vs. No. 4 Gardner-Webb, approx. 8:30 p.m.

Semifinals (Fri., March 8)

ESPN+ ($) will stream both games.

Game 7: Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Winner, 6 p.m.

Game 8: Game 5 Winner vs. Game 6 Winner, approx. 8:30 p.m.

Championship (Sun., March 10)

Game 9: Lowest-remaining seed at Highest-remaining seed, 1 p.m. (ESPN)

The Favorites

Campbell (19-11, 12-4): Clemons has simply been one of the best players in the country, averaging an NCAA-leading 30.1 points per game. That’s helped fuel the Big South’s second-most efficient offense, and over his career he’s been equal parts electrifying and clutch.

If there’s a player capable of lifting his team over a week’s worth of games, it’s him. And while he’s the Camels’ headliner, there are other reasons they appear to be the team to beat by a slight margin. For one, they’re playing well lately, having won eight of their last 10 games, including hanging on to beat second-place Radford last Saturday. The Camels take care of the ball, turn teams over at a solid clip and have a quality big man in Andrew Eudy (11.7 PPG, 6.7 RPG) to complement Clemons.

Radford (20-10, 12-4): Can muscle memory kick in for the Highlanders? Last season Carlik Jones had one of the moments of the year when he punched Radford’s NCAA ticket with a buzzer-beating three — at home, no less — to drop Liberty in the final. Jones built on that with a tremendous sophomore season (15.7 PPG, 6.1 APG, 5.1 RPG), and is one of the most well-rounded players in the league.

The Highlanders boast balance, as they posted the Big South’s third-most efficient offense and second-most efficient defense during league play. The latter was held up in large part due to bruising forward Ed Polite, who has been a terror on the boards. Radford ran out to a 10-1 conference record, which included a pair of thrilling overtime wins at the end of that hot start. The Highlanders would finish 2-3, but should not be dismissed. Remember, before a December lull, this was a team that poked its head into the way-too-early at-large discussion with wins at Notre Dame and Texas.

Dark Horses

The rest of the league? That may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Here are some quick hitters from the six other teams that finished with at least nine conference wins:

  • Winthrop (18-11, 10-6): Pat Kelsey was able avoid a drop off after the graduation of Xavier Cooks by, in part, leaning on the senior backcourt trio of Nych Smith, Adam Pickett and Bjorn Broman. Smith in particular exploded in an expanded role (16.9 PPG, 3.7 APG). That experience could be handy for a program that can never be overlooked.
  • Gardner Webb (20-11, 10-6): The Bulldogs have quietly been one of the Big South’s most consistent programs under Tim Craft. This season was no different, as they finished on an 8-2 surge. Senior center D.J. Laster is on a mini-tear, averaging 22.5 points over the past two games.
  • Charleston Southern (15-14, 9-7): The Buccaneers are another team playing well as of late, going 8-3 over their past 11 games. With just one senior in their rotation, they’re a young team searching for the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid in 22 years. Christian Keeling is a multi-dimensional factor on the wing (18.6 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 37.6 3P%).
  • Hampton (14-15, 9-7): The streaky Pirates may well have the most intriguing non-Clemons storyline heading into the event. In their inaugural campaign after coming from the MEAC, Hampton proved no fluke. The Pirates are riding a four-game winning streak, have beaten both Campbell and Radford and have a stud point guard in junior Jermaine Marrow (25.3 PPG, 38.0 3P%, 5.1 APG).
  • Presbyterian (17-14, 9-7): Second-year coach Dustin Kerns has engineered far and away the best season of the Blue Hose Division I era. Led by breakout freshman guard Adam Flagler and versatile big man Francois Lewis, Presbyterian can score points in a hurry, especially from deep.
  • High Point (16-14, 9-7): Tubby Smith used a slow-it-down style to produce the Big South’s most-efficient defense in league play. The Panthers just beat Gardner Webb on Feb. 23, so may have confidence going into the teams’ first round match on Tuesday.

Prediction

It makes too much sense to not think this is Clemons’ moment, right? While it’s hard to not fall head over heels for that storyline, it won’t be easy for the Camels. That’s particularly the case if a quarterfinal match with Hampton materializes, as the Pirates played Campbell tough in the teams’ season series split. That same argument could apply to Radford, which could have to navigate resurgent Presbyterian and a veteran Winthrop team to get to the final. When in doubt, go with the team playing well that has one of the NCAA’s most prolific scorers, and that’s Campbell.