(Compare to our preseason preview here)
- Asheville Again: After a slow 4-3 tart to the conference season, UNC Asheville finished the year on a 9-2 run clinching its second straight Big South regular season title. Led by Ahmad Thomas and MaCio Teague, the Dogs missed out on the Dance last season (after making the Tourney in 2016) losing to Winthrop in the conference title game. Nicholas McDevitt's squad is an offensive powerhouse but one that sometimes snoozes on the defensive end.
- Clemons Carries Camels: We've talked about the 5'9" dynamo Chris Clemons at length on our site and our podcast. Clemons turned in another stellar season, ranking 4th in the country in scoring (24.6ppg) while converting shots at a blistering .524/.370/.866 clip. As a sophomore, Clemons caught national attention when he nearly led his 8-seeded Camels to an unlikely Tourney berth before falling to Winthrop in the conference tournament. Now as a junior, Clemons will look to finish the job.
- Cookin' in the Kitchen w/ Xavier: The Big South Player of the Year award is arguably one of the tougher choices out of any conference in the country. For me, though, it's Xavier Cooks. Cooks turned in a spectacular senior season, ranking 3rd in the conference in scoring, 1st in rebounding, 2nd in assists, and 1st in blocked shots. No other player in the conference impacted both sides of the ball to the extent Cooks did. Per Hoop Lens, the Eagles were +0.26ppp when Cooks was on the floor versus when he sat and now sit poised to challenge for their second straight Tournament appearance.
The first round is hosted by the better seed. The quarterfinals and semifinals are hosted by the regular season champion (UNC Asheville). The final is hosted by the top remaining seed.
What to Watch:
- Campbell has owned Liberty this season, triumphing over the Flames in the squads' two conference meetings. Liberty employs the infamous pack-line defense, which focuses on clogging the lane at the cost of leaving the arc open, a strategy that feeds right into the Camels' game plan. In their two victories over Liberty this season, Campbell has shot an unfathomable 38/60 from the land of plenty. For the Flames to have a shot at the Big South Tourney crown, Ritchie McKay must make adjustments to his defensive approach.
- Ahmad Thomas has been battling injury as of late and missed Asheville's last game against Gardner-Webb, a game in which the Bulldogs fell to the Runnin' Bulldogs. Thomas is the heart and soul of this UNC-A team, an All-League player with an all-around skillset. The Dogs have a bye and then a presumptuous cake walk against the winner of Charleston Southern / Presbyterian, so hopefully the few days off will help Thomas get back to 100%.
- Radford is the hottest team in the Big South, winning its last four contests to clinch the 2-seed in the conference tournament. The Highlanders are criminally all too often ignored when we talk about the Big South contenders, but this squad has just as good a shot as any to represent the league in the Big Dance. Look for All-Conference performer Ed Polite to lead the way.
Who Will Win:
- Winthrop - On the podcast I said UNC-A would win the championship. I lied. My mind changed once I saw the bracket. The Eagles dominated their first round opponent, Gardner-Webb, during the regular season, defeating the Dogs twice by an average of 21 points. Recently, Winthrop took down Radford by 18. With Asheville having to face the winner of Liberty / Campbell - two dangerous squads itching for an NCAA berth - I'll take the Eagles.
If Not Them, Then:
- UNC Asheville - Of course if Ahmad Thomas is fully healthy, there's not a more talented roster in the Big South. Thomas and his running mate MaCio Teague have full capability of running roughshod over the competition and earning a bid to the NCAA Tourney.