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Is High Point on the cusp of becoming a Big South force?

The Panthers boast a shiny new arena, a sparkling campus and a growing student body setting up a basketball rise

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 13 High Point at Boston College
Photo by Mark Box/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The next mid-major power could be a program you’ve never heard of.

If you don’t know much about basketball at High Point University, it’s most likely because there has never been much to talk about. The university made the jump to Division I in 1999, and the basketball program has been middling in mediocrity for the last two decades. As things currently stand, High Point is one of 44 programs that have never made the NCAA Tournament.

Even casual college basketball spectators are aware that the state of North Carolina is synonymous with college basketball. Duke and North Carolina have built one of the greatest rivalries in American sports, and other programs such as NC State and Wake Forest have also enjoyed some iconic moments among others in the state.

While college hoops in North Carolina will always be associated with Tobacco Road and the ACC, the state is also loaded with a long list of mid-major programs that have had success on college basketball’s grandest stage. No one could ever forget Davidson’s fabled Elite 8 run led by sophomore star Stephen Curry.

In addition to Davidson’s established success, other mid-major programs throughout North Carolina such as UNC Greensboro, UNC Charlotte, UNC Wilmington and North Carolina Central have track records of sustained success since the turn of the century. So why could High Point be the next program to join this list?

High Point is located just west of North Carolina’s famous triangle (UNC, Duke, and NC State) of college basketball powerhouses. Home to over 5,000 students, High Point is a growing school in a state filled with college basketball fervor. The university has undergone drastic changes recently, as hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent over the last 15 years to give the school a complete makeover. In response to the new-look campus, High Point’s undergraduate population has more than doubled in less than two decades. The latest on High Point University’s growing renovation list was a new basketball facility.

Starting with the 2021-2022 season, the university will be cutting the ribbons on Qubein Arena. The new state-of-the-art facility serves as a significant upgrade to the Millis Center, the tiny venue the school had called home since 1992. The last game at the Millis Center was also arguably the most famous, as the High Point women’s basketball team beat Campbell in the Big South championship to become the first team in school history to qualify for the D-I NCAA Tournament.

High Point basketball also enjoys the luxury of easily being able to capture most of the spotlight on campus, as the university doesn’t have a football program and has no plans to create one anytime soon.

High Point is in a prime location with a modern campus, growing student body, and a pristine new basketball arena at a school that doesn’t have a football team to compete with. The infrastructure to build a winning Big South program is certainly in place, but does this mean success for the basketball program is imminent?

The university is undeniably signaling a serious commitment to their basketball program. But before buying too much stock in the future of the program, we need to take a step back and look at how the team has actually performed as of late. Ever since the school made the jump to D-I in 1999, High Point basketball has been one of the more forgotten programs across the landscape.

High Point hopes that the new arena will also change the fortunes of a program that has been characterized by middle-of-the-road basketball for the past two decades.

While the Panthers are rarely the Big South’s worst, they’re also never exactly seen as legitimate contenders for the conference crown. High Point has only made the finals of the Big South tournament twice, the last one coming in 2004.

The pinnacle of High Point’s success at the D-I level would have to be the stretch from 2013-16 under the guidance of Scott Cherry, where the team won the Big South regular season crown four years in a row. The four-year run also featured two appearances in the NIT, where the Panthers lost their first-round matchup on both occasions.

Unfortunately, the elephant in the room remains. Despite some regular season success, it hasn’t culminated in the school’s first ticket to the Big Dance. After a pair of average seasons, Cherry was relieved of his duties as High Point’s head basketball coach in 2018.

HPU did make some headlines when they elected Cherry’s successor, as they tabbed none other than the legendary, National Championship-winning Tubby Smith to take over the reins of the program in 2018. Smith is also an alumni of the school, and fans were optimistic that a seasoned veteran with ties to the school would be able to bring sustained winning to the program. However, through three years of Smith’s tenure, it has unfortunately been more of the same for the Panthers.

Over the last three seasons, High Point has an aggregate record of 21-30 in Big South play. While Smith is undeniably one of college basketball’s greatest coaches of all time, he hasn’t led a team to the NCAA Tournament since 2016. Panther faithful are assuredly growing concerned that perhaps Smith’s best days are behind him, and he may not be the guy to lead the team to the elusive breakthrough.

While Smith’s first three seasons at High Point obviously warrant some criticism, there is also some reason to be optimistic that perhaps High Point could soon turn a corner under Smith’s leadership. The Panthers got an enormous boost in May, when star guard John-Michael Wright took his name out of the transfer portal despite drawing interest from some high major schools. Wright averaged 20.7 points per game last year while shooting 41.8% from the field as a sophomore. A local product from Fayetteville, Wright has a legitimate chance to enshrine himself as one of the greatest players in program history.

The Panthers should not be slept on as a dark horse Big South contender heading into the new season. Sure, the Panthers finished Big South play with an abysmal 6-11 mark last year, but Smith returns the entire core of this group that was one of the younger teams in college basketball a year ago.

While Wright is clearly the leader of this group, the Panthers also got a boost when senior forward Lydell Elmore decided to use the extra year of eligibility granted to him by the NCAA. Elmore was second to Wright last season, averaging 11 points per game to go along with 6.2 rebounds. Joining Elmore in the front court will be junior Emmanual Izunabor, who averaged 4.9 points and 4.1 rebounds per game last year.

Also set to return is a talented sophomore duo in Ahmil Flowers and Jaden House. Flowers was voted to the Big South All-Freshman team after averaging 8.3 points per game as a freshman. Perhaps the nucleus of Wright, Flowers, Izunabor and House could emerge as the core that launches High Point onto their first NCAA Tournament bracket.

It’s impossible to project what the immediate future has in store for High Point basketball, but it’s difficult not to be infatuated with what the ceiling of this program could become. The Panthers are in a unique position to cash in on a new arena with a growing fanbase in a hoops-crazed state, but a winning culture will always be something that can’t be bought. If the team ever wants to find its ceiling, a winning identity is going to have to be established. Perhaps this happens under the guidance of Smith or someone else, but if High Point is ever able to build a little momentum don’t discount the potential of the program to emerge as a serious regional power.