Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
OUTLOOK: UNC-Asheville ran away with the Big South regular-season title a year ago and was the only team in the league to post 20+ victories overall. A couple of other programs, Coastal Carolina and Charleston Southern were just under that mark with 19 victories each, while Campbell, in its first season in the league, made a positive first-impression with 17 wins.
The new look Big South now has 12 teams and will be broken into two divisions for the first time in conference history. Of the 12 teams, only one is under new management, with Pat Kelsey taking over at Winthrop, a team in obvious transition. The conference tournament will include all 12 teams.
Campbell is one of the favorites to win the whole thing, headlining the North Division, while Charleston Southern gets the nod in the South. Other teams with realistic shots at the conference crown include Coastal Carolina and VMI. The Chanticleers have a couple of premier players vying for all-conference honors, as do the Keydets.
Unfortunately for the reigning conference champion, UNC-Asheville is in a rebuilding mode as no team in the league has lost more than the Bulldogs. While matching last year's win total is highly unlikely, expect UNCA to remain a tough out.
Teams that will likely improve on last year's win totals but aren't quite ready to make the move to the top of the conference include High Point and Liberty. Gardner-Webb has a chance to improve as well with a nice nucleus returning. How far the team moves up the league ladder remains to be seen, though.
The bottom of the conference standings will likely feature Radford, Longwood and Presbyterian. The Highlanders were last in the conference a year ago with a mere six total wins, including just two in the Big South. It could be a long road back to relevance for Mike Jones' squad. The Lancers join the Big South this year as the 12th team, but Longwood is likely to struggle in its first go-around in the league. The Blue Hose finished one game under .500 last year, but have to replace more starters than just about every other team in the conference.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Campbell
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: North Division: 1. Campbell, 2. VMI, 3. High Point, 4. Liberty, 5. Longwood, 6. Radford. South Division: 1. Charleston Southern, 2. Coastal Carolina, 3. UNC Asheville, 4. Gardner-Webb, 5. Winthrop, 6. Presbyterian
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
CAMPBELL - The Fighting Camels are coming off a 17-15 season and a third-place tie in the Big South at 11-7. Robbie Lang returns three starters from that squad, including a pair of all-conference performers in Darren White and Trey Freeman. White, a 6-4 senior, averaged 16.8 ppg a year ago and is regarded as the best all-around player in the league. Freeman, a 6-2 sophomore, showed great potential as a freshman last year, averaging just under 14 points per game (13.9). Junior forward Marvelle Harris is the top returning player in the frontcourt for Campbell, but he is known more for his rebounding (5.8 rpg last year) and shot-blocking skills (78 in 63 games) than his scoring prowess (5.0 ppg). Freshmen Jordan Faciane (6-4 guard) and D.J. Mason (6-6 forward) have the opportunity for extended minutes right away, as does juco transfer Antwon Oliver (6-6 forward).
VMI - Military school or not, VMI has gotten the job done under head coach Duggar Baucom, including a 17-16 mark a year ago. Still, the Keydets finished two games under .500 in conference play (8-10), so there is plenty of room for improvement. Baucom must find a replacement for leading scorer Keith Gabriel (17.5 ppg), but does have three starters returning, including BSC Preseason Player of the Year Stan Okoye up front. The 6-6 senior is poised for a big year, after shooting .519 from the floor last season and putting up 17.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. There aren't a whole lot of proven commodities in terms of scoring around Okoye, although the hope is that guard Rodney Glasgow (6.2 ppg) and forward Nick Gore (4.3 ppg) can improve their offensive numbers in 2012-13. Incoming freshman who could see valuable minutes are Gavin Stephenson (6-3 guard) Dorian Albritton (6-4 forward), Phillip Anglade (6-5 forward) and Tim Marshall (6-3 guard).
HIGH POINT - The Panthers finished last year at 13-18 overall, including an 8-10 finish in the Big South. Pushing towards a winning record may be tough for Scott Cherry's squad this season, especially with the backcourt losses of scoring machine Nick Barbour (20.4 ppg) and Shay Shine (15.6 ppg). The cupboard isn't exactly bare and Cherry has stocked it well with incoming talent, but returning players like sophomore guard Devante Wallace and senior forward Corey Law will need to take on more in terms of leadership responsibilities. Law averaged just under 10 points per game last year and led the team (third straight year) with 7.2 rebounds per outing. Law posted six double-doubles last season, so there is certainly an anticipation of him becoming one of the league's top interior players. Forward John Brown, who took a redshirt last season, was the Florida 1A Player of the Year as a high school senior and could be a big contributor in 2012-13 up front, along with graduate student and former Florida Gator and Virginia Tech Hokie Allan Chaney, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility.
LIBERTY - The Flames were just 14-18 overall last season, but finished an even 9-9 in league play, good for fifth place. The impressive thing about the conference record is the fact that the Flames began in a deep whole, losing their first six league games. Dale Layer has the task of replacing the top two scorers from a year ago, but he has a deep roster that includes key returnees as well as newcomers that will help fill the void. Returning are a pair of double-digit scorers in senior guard Tavares Speaks (10.2 ppg) and senior forward Antwan Burrus (11.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg). Junior John Caleb Sanders (11.6 ppg) returns to provide scoring punch in the backcourt. Caleb Sanders burst on the scene last year as a real offensive threat and the hope is that he can continue his upward swing. Incoming talent that could provide help includes freshman Larry Taylor (6-1 guard) and juco transfers JR Coronado (6-8 forward) and Davon Marshall (5-11 guard).
LONGWOOD - The Lancers' first season with a full Big South schedule could prove daunting to say the least. Longwood managed just 10 wins a year ago as an independent and returns just one starter from that group. Mike Gillian hopes to have his team competitive in its new home from day one. The biggest hole to fill is the school's career leader in scoring, Antwan Carter, who has moved on. The only returning starter, junior guard Tristan Carey, will be charged with leading the team in 2012-13. Carey did a little bit of everything as a sophomore, averaging 13.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. Fellow junior David Robinson (7.7 ppg) and sophomore Anthony Taylor (3.3 ppg) add to the team's backcourt depth. There isn't much in terms of proven players in the frontcourt. The hope is that juco transfer Frank Holloway (6-6, 250) can become a force up front
RADFORD - The Highlanders won a conference-low six games last season and finished last in the Big South at 2-16. Mike Jones has a tall task ahead of him, as calling his team simply young doesn't really tell the tale. Radford has just one senior, four sophomores and eight freshmen among the 14-man roster. The cupboard isn't exactly bare though, as sophomore guards R.J. Price (11.2 ppg) and Javonte Green (10.2 ppg) contributed right away in 2011-12. The team shot under 40 percent from the floor a year ago, so fixing that problem is first and foremost. The hope is that an impressive recruiting class, highlighted by 6-2 Ya Ya Anderson, the 2011 Virginia Group-AA State Player of the Year, and 6-0 Rashun Davis, an All-North Carolina selection, will help in that regard. Other newcomers will be charged with providing frontcourt balance, but Radford may struggle down low with a lack of proven commodities.
CHARLESTON SOUTHERN - The Buccaneers finished last season with a 19-12 record, including an 11-7 league mark, good for a third-place tie. With four starters returning, Charleston Southern is considered one of the favorites to take home the conference crown in 2012-13. Barclay Radebaugh will have to find a way to replace the dominant play that departing forward Kelvin Martin (15.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg) provided, but there is plenty left, as well as intriguing newcomers that will keep the Buccaneers chugging along. The team possesses one of the conference's top backcourt tandems in sophomores Saah Nimley (13.5 ppg, 3.9 apg) and Arlon Harper (12.5 ppg). The real test will be finding frontcourt balance. Senior forward Mathiang Muo (9.8 ppg), a 3-point specialist, and sophomore forward Cedrick Bowen, who showed glimpses of dominant play, are two of the top candidates up front. A lot is expected of juco transfer Allie Fullah as well. The 6-7 forward is a good athlete who could provide the muscle Charleston Southern may be missing.
COASTAL CAROLINA - The Chanticleers finished in second place in the Big South last year with a solid 12-6 record, finishing just under the 20-win mark at 19-12 overall. Cliff Ellis has built-in motivation to push his team to new heights, as Coastal Carolina will play host to the conference tournament this year. The team will be fueled in 2012-13 by the backcourt tandem of point guard Kierre Greenwood (11.1 ppg) and shooter Anthony Raffa (team-high 16.7 ppg). Ellis is hoping that a strong recruiting class will add balance down low. It better, as the team must find adequate replacements for center Jon Pack (7.1 ppg. 6.3 rpg) and forward Sam McLaurin (10.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg). Freshman forward Tristian Curtis (6-7, 215) should give the team an athletic figure at both ends of the floor. Size will be a concern though for Coastal Carolina, with juco transfer El Hadji Ndieguene being the biggest player at 6-10, 245 pounds, but not exactly a proven commodity. Still, superb guard play will be the strength of this squad and could be enough to push the Chanticleers to the top of the conference when all is said and done.
UNC ASHEVILLE - Eddie Biedenbach led the Bulldogs to a stellar 24 wins last season, as UNC Asheville ran through the competition in the Big South (16-2), winning the regular-season and tournament crowns and earning the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. To prove the run was no fluke, the Bulldogs gave powerhouse Syracuse all it could handle in the Big Dance, before falling 72-65. Repeating that season isn't likely, as UNCA loses four of the five starters from that squad and a ton of the scoring. The team can no longer lean on players like Matt Dickey (16.1 ppg), J.P. Primm (15.4 ppg) and Chris Stephenson (12.8 ppg). So where will the scoring come from in 2012-13? The team still possesses a couple of proven players in Jeremy Atkinson (11.7 ppg) and Jaron Lane (11.5 ppg), both of whom are quality shooters. Depth is where the Bulldogs are lacking, as newcomers will need to step up and deliver right away. Likely candidates include freshmen Zack Davis (6-3 guard) and Sam Hughes (6-4 swingman).
GARDNER-WEBB - Chris Holtmann enters his third season at the helm of Gardner- Webb, and could have his best team to date. Coming off a pair of sub-par campaigns, including a 12-20 mark a year ago, there is a lot of room for improvement. Holtmann benefits from the return of four starters from last year, headlined by senior guard Tashan Newsome (12.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg). Other players with starting experience include guard Max Landis (9.5 ppg), center Mike Byron (5.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and forward Kevin Hartley (5.5 ppg). A lot is expected of UCF transfer Jarvis Davis (6-0 guard), juco transfer Onzie Branch (6-6 forward) and freshmen Jerome Hill (6-5 guard) and Isaiah Ivey (6-2 guard). The Bulldogs lost a lot of close games last season and if they can buckle down in tight contests, climbing up the conference standings is within reach.
WINTHROP - The Eagles are under new management after a disappointing 12-20 record a year ago. Pat Kelsey is in the new man in charge, but will face a tough task of bringing Winthrop out of the conference dregs this season, as he must replace four senior starters from a year ago, including star guard Andre Jones (16.0 ppg). The lone returning starter is junior forward Joab Jerome, who is more of a defensive presence than scoring option. Big man Steve Johnson hopefully is one of the answers in the paint. The 6-8, 225-pound juco transfer averaged a double-double a year ago at Brunswick C.C. Another juco transfer, 6-5 guard Christian Farmer, was a big time scorer at Tallahassee C.C. last season and could become an instant contributor as well.
PRESBYTERIAN - The Blue Hose just missed a winning season a year ago, finishing 14-15 overall, including a respectable 8-10 mark in the Big South. The 14 wins were the most for Presbyterian at the Division I level, as the team missed out on its first winning season since 2007. Matching those totals will be tough though, as long-time coach Gregg Nibbert must replace a good portion of his offense, with the losses of four starters, the most important of which is forward A'Lonzo Coleman (16.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg). The lone holdover from the starting lineup is Khalid Mutakabbir. The 6-4 senior was tabbed an All-Big South Second-Team member a year ago after averaging 13.7 ppg, while leading the league in minutes played (36.38). Sophomore Eric Washington (6.1 ppg) and freshman Shea Jones (6-1, 165) should add to the backcourt depth. There are plenty of unknowns for PC in the frontcourt, although 6-8 freshman forward Jarvis Thibodeaux II and 7-0 freshman center Jake Campbell could give the team a couple of low post contributors.