Big South Tournament Preview: Handicapping a Wide-Open Field

Big South Tournament Preview: Handicapping a Wide-Open Field article feature image
Credit:

© Linsey Fagan-USA TODAY Sports

The Big South Conference tournament has arrived, which means daytime hoops action is just around the corner. For those not familiar with the conference, you will enjoy my preview below for the mascot names alone. We have Lancers, Blue Hose, and of course, Fighting Camels. I will first dive into my in-depth thoughts on the Big South bracket, then provide ATS predictions for each of the following first round matchups today:

  • Longwood at High Point (-13.5)
  • Presbyterian at Charleston Southern (-10.5)

Big South Conference Tournament

Who

Where

The first round games are played at the campus site of the higher seed. The quarter and semifinals will be played at Kimmel Arena in Asheville, while the highest remaining seed will host the championship game on Sunday, March 4.

Who Should Win

UNC Asheville +163

You can make a legitimate case for any of the top five seeds in a wide-open tournament. However, UNCA took home the regular-season title, which earned it home-court advantage for as long as it stays alive. UNCA lost just once at home this year, when Liberty hit a buzzer-beater to force overtime. Coach Nick McDevitt’s squad is a veteran group looking to atone for last year’s early exit, when they got Chris Clemons’d by Campbell.

The Bulldogs are small, but extremely athletic. McDevitt utilizes an aggressive 1-3-1 matchup zone to keep offenses off balance, but this is the worst defense he has had in the last three seasons. UNCA generated turnovers at the 12th highest rate in the country in back to back seasons, before plummeting to 178th this year. Despite UNCA’s lack of size, the Bulldogs actually weren’t that poor in rim defense, as German sophomore Jonathan Baehre recorded the highest block rate in league play. Unfortunately, he had trouble staying on the floor due to constant foul trouble. Per hooplens.com, UNCA held Big South opponents to .99 points per possession (ppp) with Baehre on the floor, as opposed to 1.12 ppp without him. He must stay out of foul trouble for the UNCA defense to hold up for three games.

Offensively, the Bulldogs basically run out four point guards around Baehre. Guards Ahmad Thomas (who sat out last game with an ankle injury, but should be OK), Kevin Vannatta and Raekwon Miller are all seniors who can put the ball on the floor, pass and shoot from deep. (Think a poor man’s Villanova when you think of UNCA’s offense). The true star of the group is sophomore MaCio Teague, who is a devastating shooter. Despite shooting a ridiculous 44.5% from deep in league play, Teague is McDevitt’s preferred choice to run pick and roll. Since Big South coaches generally put their best on-ball defender on Teague, Miller (who shot 45% from deep) can take advantage. Miller also draws a ton of contact off the dribble. Thomas meanwhile serves as a defacto 4 and exploits the lack of mobility of bigger 4s. He can also switch 1-4 defensively.

If Not UNCA, Then…

No. 3 Winthrop +240

The defending champs stumbled to a 1-3 conference start, but then gained the upper hand in the regular season title race by waxing UNCA in Rock Hill. The Bulldogs predictably returned the favor in Asheville, but then the Eagles followed that up with a shocking home loss to Charleston Southern on senior night. That loss bumped Winthrop down to the No. 3 seed. We could see an angry Winthrop team, which benefits from avoiding Liberty in its half of the bracket. The Flames swept the Eagles, as a result of their ability to limit penetration.

Winthrop, which led the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency, has the Big South’s biggest mismatch in Xavier Cooks, a mobile 6-foot-8 power forward with the ball skills of a point guard. The Aussie ranked second in usage rate, fifth in shot rate and second in assist rate in Big South play. He also drew contact at the second-highest rate.

Head coach Pat Kelsey preaches “pace and space” for a Winthrop that plays at the fastest pace in the league. The Eagles put a lot of pressure on defenses to stay in front of Cooks and off-guard Adam Pickett. Winthrop does have some issues, as it lacks a true ball handler (which is why so much offense filters through Cooks). As a result, the Eagles had the ninth highest turnover rate in league play. They’re also extremely small and less athletic than most Big South teams 1-3 between Pickett and the Broman brothers.

Winthrop plays a pack line base defense and is outstanding in transition. However, you can exploit the Eagles’ lack of length and athleticism in the backcourt by breaking them down one on one in isolation. Winthrop’s first test will come against No. 6 Gardner Webb, which has been bounced by the Eagles the past two years in this tourney, including a thriller in last year’s semis (Winthrop has actually won eight straight overall in the series). GWU has battled injuries all year and really has zero answer for Cooks, who totaled 53 points on 21-of-33 shooting and 30 rebounds in the two meetings this year. In the past five meetings against GWU, Cooks is averaging 23.6 ppg and 12.8 rpg.

Potential Sleepers

Charleston Southern 30-1 and High Point 15-1

Favorite UNCA will host the winner of No. 8 Charleston Southern and No. 9 Presbyterian. CSU is somewhat of a deep sleeper at 30-1, despite starting Big South play at 1-6. It finished 8-3, with one of those losses coming via an OT heartbreaker against UNCA. Head coach Barclay Radebaugh has changed his entire defensive scheme, as the Bucs are pressing full court and using less zone. CSU posted the 15th-highest defensive turnover rate nationally, and it turned over Big South opponents at a league-best 24.6% rate. Radebaugh uses a deep bench to bring pressure in waves with long armed defenders like Phlandrous Fleming, Chris Keeling and Travis McConico. Offensively, CSU wants to operate in the open floor off turnovers. It scores 1.14 ppp in transition, as opposed to just .85 ppp in the half court, per Synergy.

One of CSU’s losses in its 8-3 finish came at home to first-round opponent Presbyterian. The Blue Hose won despite a 33% turnover rate, as CSU shot just 3-of-26 from 3. Presbyterian is probably the last team in the bottom half of the standings that CSU wanted to see, as PC owns the league’s lowest rate thanks to outstanding senior PG Davon Bell.  PC has a pair of volume shooters in JC Younger and Reggie Dillard, but both struggle on defense. As a whole, PC registered the worst defensive rating in the league.

No. 2 seed Radford (+440) features a fearless and talented freshman point guard in Carlick Jones and 6-foot-5 swiss army knife in Ed Polite. Radford generates plenty of extra possessions with its full court pressure defense and the league’s highest offensive rebounding rate. Those are traits that can buoy a team in a tournament setting on a neutral floor, especially in front of sparse day-game crowds. Radford also plays the best 2PT% defense in the league, while simultaneously allowing the lowest 3PT attempt rate.

Radford will face the winner of No. 7 seed High Point and No. 10 seed Longwood. High Point easily swept Longwood this season and is a deep sleeper at 15-1 because of its talent level and long backcourt/wing trio of Jahaad Proctor, Andre Fox and Brandonn Kamga. All three can shoot and slash to the basket from multiple positions on the floor. HPU plays at its peak when those three attack the rim in the open court, but the Panthers get bogged down by teams that force them into a half-court game. However, Longwood has one of the worst transition defenses in the country and hasn’t been competitive in three weeks. The Lancers even suffered a humiliating 70-47 loss to Radford on Senior Night in their season finale.

Big South Final Prediction

No. 1 UNCA over No. 3 Winthrop 

Most Intriguing Matchup

No. 5 Liberty vs No. 4 Campbell

This Thursday matchup in Asheville could give us our first real “This. Is. March.” moment. Campbell is led by last year’s Big South hero Chris Clemons (pictured above), who torched the field en route to a surprise run to the title game. Clemons and his lethal backcourt running mate Marcus Burk famously combined to torch Liberty’s UVA-inspired pack-line defense with 20 3s in the first meeting. Clemons and Burk each hit 10, combining for 74 points en route to a 94-85 win.

In the rematch, Campbell hit 15-of-27 from deep. That means it shot an absurd 38-60 from 3 in two wins against the Flames this season. While Liberty didn’t tweak anything in the second meeting, it did start playing more 3-2 zone later in the season. Unfortunately, Campbell’s head coach Kevin McGeehan’s modified Princeton motion offense has shredded zones this year. The Camels grade out in the 98th percentile nationally in zone offense, per Synergy.

Speaking of zones, Campbell’s matchup zone didn’t do much to stop Liberty, which scored an impressive 1.25 ppp in the two losses. The Flames have an outstanding shooting PG in Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz and the program’s all-time leading 3-point shooter in Ryan Kemrite. However, off guard Lovell Cabbil recently suffered a knee injury, which puts his status in question.

Tuesday R1 Big South ATS Predictions

Presbyterian +10.5
Longwood +13.5

Top photo via Linsey Fagan-USA TODAY Sports