Longwood just capped off its best regular season in Division-I history, winning 16 of its last 17 and easing its way to an outright conference championship. It’s more than just the Lancers in the Big South though.
Winthrop has won the last two regular-season titles is lurking in the rearview mirror, winning eight straight. Behind, Gardner-Webb brings in an elite defense that has kept opponents under 65 points in seven of its last 10, holding them to only 25% from behind the arch.
There are plenty more contenders as the Big South tends to have a flair for the dramatics come March. Nearly every team has a legitimate reason on how they could win the tournament, making it one of the most unpredictable in the country. It should be a fun couple of days in Charlotte.
Note: All Games will take place in Charlotte. All times are Eastern.
First Round (Wednesday, March 2nd), ESPN+
Game 1: No.9 NC A&T vs No.8 Radford, 11:30 a.m.
Game 2: No.12 Charleston Southern vs No.5 UNC Asheville, 2 p.m.
Game 3: No.10 Hampton vs No.7 High Point, 6 p.m.
Game 4: No.11 Presbyterian vs No.6 Campbell, 8 p.m.
Quarterfinals (Friday, March 4th), ESPN+
Game 5: Game 1 Winner vs No.1 Longwood, NOON
Game 6: Game 2 Winner vs No.4 USC Upstate, 2 p.m.
Game 7: Game 3 Winner vs No.2 Winthrop, 6 p.m.
Game 8: Game 4 Winner vs No.3 Gardner-Webb, 8 p.m.
Semifinals (Saturday, March 5th), ESPN+
Game 9: Game 5 Winner vs Game 6 Winner, NOON
Game 10: Game 7 Winner vs Game 8 Winner, 2 p.m
Finals (Sunday, March 6th), ESPN2
Game 11: Game 9 Winner vs Game 10 Winner, NOON
Longwood (23-6, 15-1): Griff Aldrich has fulfilled the dream that all mid-major coaches have. Not only is he consistently bringing in talent, but he’s also built Farmville into a basketball town. Night-in and night-out, Willett Hall was packed to the brim, and it showed with their 16-1 home record.
On the floor, Justin Hill played himself into Big South Player of the Year conversations. Leading the Lancers with 13.9 points per game, the 6-foot sophomore was the primary ball-handler. Along with him in the backcourt, senior guards Isaiah Wilkins and Deshaun Wade have shined from 3 and that’s shown as the Lancers rank 17th in KenPom’s 3-point percentage ranking.
The Lancers have beaten everyone in their tournament path and Aldrich has March pedigree with his history at UMBC. If they can make their first NCAA Tournament in school history, nothing is out of the question.
Winthrop (21-8, 14-2): Winners of eight straight, the Winthrop Eagles are getting hot at the right time. They’ve clinched the last two NCAA Tournament bids but have a new coach, Mark Prosser. Outside of that, nothing much more has really changed.
DJ Burns is the Player of the Year in the conference, averaging 15.3 PPG and shooting 63.5% from the field. He also takes 38.3% of his teams’ shots, good for 3rd in the country. His efficiency is what carries these Eagles, as they rank 5th in effective field goal percentage and 6th in two-point percentage. Behind him, Patrick Good is one of the best shooters in the country, ranking 4th in the country in true shooter percentage.
If pedigree means anything in this tournament, Winthrop has it all.
Gardner-Webb (17-12, 11-5): D’Maurian Williams and Lance Terry both average 14.4 points per game and are the core of the team. Catch them playing against anyone outside of the top four in the league, and they’re money, sitting at an 11-0 record.
USC Upstate (13-15, 10-6): Led by the top 3-point shooter in the country and freshman of the year in the Big South, Jordan Gainey, Dave Dickerson has turned around a program that has not finished above five hundred since 2017. Win the tournament, and they will overcome that plateau.
Campbell (15-12, 8-8): The Camels are led by a three-headed monster in the backcourt who each play around 85% of minutes in their games. Cedric Henderson Jr. is a sharpshooter who hits his shots at a 50.8% clip and averages 14.1 points per game. Ricky Clemons is averaging 10.1 PPG while shooting 62.1% from the field. If these guys get open, it’s end-game for the rest of the Big South.
UNC Asheville (16-13, 8-8): Drew Pember’s injury status will be a big talking point on how far this Bulldog team will go. He didn’t play on Saturday against Presbyterian, but they didn’t need his 15.4 points per game, pulling off the 3OT victory. Along with him, LJ Thorpe is one of the best players in the league, just shooting under 50% from the field and ranking 11th in the country in assist rate. He is their primary ball-handler, ranking fifth in the nation in percentage of possessions.
High Point (13-17, 7-9): High Point has some scary pieces but a couple of weeks ago that hall of fame head coach, Tubby Smith, would step down due to health issues. In stepped his son G.G. who was recently the head coach at Loyola (MD) and since he’s been officially implemented, the Panthers are on a two-game winning streak. In the backcourt, John-Michael Wright continues to haunt the league, averaging 18.5 points per game. He now has a key member in the front of the court, Zack Austin who is averaging 14.5 PPG and 7.8 RPG, recently being named the co-Big South Freshman of the Year.
North Carolina A&T (11-19, 6-10): Regular Season Champions of the MEAC in its final two seasons, the Big South hasn’t been all too kind to the Aggies. They did hand first-placed Longwood its only loss though and are hungry for a conference tournament win as they didn’t get to play in there’s last season because of COVID-19 issues.
Presbyterian (12-19, 4-12): A program that always has so much talent but can’t seem to get over the hump, Presbyterian comes into this tournament as the 11-seed. Rayshon Harrison is where this team runs through as he averages 17 PPG. Winston Hill and Trevon Reddish-Rhone are sharpshooters, both hovering around 50%. They already beat Campbell and nearly beat who would be their quarterfinal matchup, Gardner-Webb. Anything is possible come March.
Players to Watch
Justin Hill, Longwood (13.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.9 APG, 42.8% FG%)
Cedric Henderson Jr., Campbell (14.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 50.8% FG%)
Ricky Clemons, Campbell (10.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 62.1% FG%)
John-Michael Wright, High Point (18.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.4 APG, 40.9% FG%)
Zack Austin, High Point (14.5 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 42.7% FG%)
Jaden House, High Point (11.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 43.8% FG%)
Demetric Horton, NC A&T (10.7 PPG, 5 RPG, 44% FG%)
Najee Garvin, Hampton (15.2 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 40.7% FG%)
Russell Dean, Hampton (14.4 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 3.9 APG, 34.5% FG%)
D.J. Burns Jr., Winthrop (15.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 63.5% FG%)
Patrick Good, Winthrop (11.6 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 48.2% FG%)
Cory Hightower, Winthrop (11.5 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 45% FG%)
D’Maurian Williams, Gardner-Webb (14.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 41.1% FG%)
Lance Terry, Gardner-Webb (14.4 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 46.7% FG%)
Jordan Gainey, USC Upstate (13.4 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 47.9% FG%)
Bryson Mozone, USC Upstate (15.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 43.6% FG%)
Drew Pember, UNC Asheville (15.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 48.2% FG%)
LJ Thorpe, UNC Asheville (13.7 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.6 APG, 49.8% FG%)
Taijon Jones, UNC Asheville (12.7 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 42.1% FG%)
Rayshon Harrison, Presbyterian (17 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3 APG, 36.3% FG%)
Tahlik Chavez, Charleston Southern (11.8 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 38.6% FG%)
It could go pretty chalk going into the semifinals, but it honestly can be a very wide-open tournament. Give me the Runnin’ Bulldogs of Gardner-Webb making it back into the NCAA Tournament, beating UNC Asheville in the championship game. A potential GWU/Winthrop semifinal matchup could be must-watch television.