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October 4, 2011

League preview: Big South

We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we're working backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.

The breakdowns will become more in-depth as the leagues get bigger.

29. Big South

By Gary Mondello

These are exciting times at UNC Asheville.

Last season, the Bulldogs enjoyed a magical March by winning the Big South tournament title and earning the first "First Four" victory in NCAA tournament history. In the offseason, they received more good news when J.P. Primm pulled out of the NBA draft (Primm and Matt Dickey will form the best backcourt in the Big South).

This season, the Bulldogs will christen a new 3,200-seat, on-campus court (Kimmel Arena) when they play host to ACC powerhouse North Carolina on Nov. 13.

All the new wasn't good at UNCA, though. Junior C D.J. Cunningham will miss the season after having knee surgery. Still, the Bulldogs should have enough to win the Big South and return to the NCAA tournament.

[King: 10 questions entering the 2011-12 season]

VMI, which led the nation in scoring for the fifth consecutive season in 2010-11, will challenge UNCA for the league title. Although Austin Kenon is gone, Ron Burks, Keith Gabriel and Michael Sparks provide solid senior leadership, and frontcourt players Stan Okoye and D.J. Covington could each average a double-double. The Keydets now have a frontcourt to complement their talented backcourt.

Coastal Carolina has the talent to win the league, but a big cloud hangs over Cliff Ellis' program. Last season, the Chanticleers won 22 consecutive games at one point, but they saw their streak end and their season unravel. It started with an injury to Kierre Greenwood, then the indefinite suspension of leading scorer Desmond Holloway over an eligibility issue and an NCAA investigation over alleged violations within the program. Greenwood is back, Holloway is gone and the NCAA still is investigating.

Charleston Southern, led by F Kelvin Martin, could be the Big South's surprise team, but the Buccaneers must avoid the late-season collapses that have plagued them the past few seasons. Liberty returns the Big South player of the year in G Jesse Sanders, but the losses of John Brown (injury) and Evan Gordon (transfer to Arizona State) hurt the Flames' title chances.

[King: College hoops preseason power rankings]

High Point has a talented backcourt in Nick Barbour and Shay Shine, and freshman F John Brown should make an immediate impact. Winthrop also has a talented backcourt, led by PG Reggie Middleton.

Presbyterian still is transitioning to Division I and is not eligible for the regular-season or tournament championships. And star F Al'Lonzo Coleman still is dealing with an ankle injury from last season, adding to the Blue Hoes' woes. He did not play on the team's recent trip to Italy, and his status is up in the air.

The Big South adds a new team this season in Campbell. The school was a charter member of the Big South in 1983 but left for the Atlantic Sun in 1994. Gardner-Webb continues its rebuilding effort under second-year coach Chris Holtmann. Radford, which also had NCAA issues that led to Brad Greenberg's resignation in May, has the only new coach in the league in VCU assistant Mike Jones. He has a lot of work to do.

F Kelvin Martin, Charl. Southern (6-5/207, Sr.)
F Stan Okoye, VMI (6-5/205, Jr.)
G Matt Dickey, UNC Asheville (6-1/180, Sr.)
G J.P. Primm, UNC Asheville (6-1/195, Sr.)
G Jesse Sanders, Liberty (6-3/200 Sr.)

F D.J. Covington, VMI (6-9/235, Soph.)
F Sam McLaurin, Coastal Carolina (6-8/230, Jr.)
G Nick Barbour, High Point (6-3/175, Sr.)
G Reggie Middleton, Winthrop (6-1/190, Sr.)
G Shay Shine, High Point (6-2/195, Sr.)

UNC Asheville G Matt Dickey
High Point F John Brown

1. UNC Asheville
2. VMI
3. Coastal Carolina
4. Charleston Southern
5. Liberty
6. High Point
7. Winthrop
8. Presbyterian
9. Campbell
10. Gardner-Webb
11. Radford

Best frontcourt: VMI
Best backcourt: UNC Asheville
Coach on the rise: High Point's Scott Cherry
Coach on the hot seat: Coastal Carolina's Cliff Ellis

New coaches: Mike Jones at Radford (had been assistant at VCU)
Regular-season winner last season: Coastal Carolina
Tourney winner last season: UNC Asheville
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 22nd in 2010-11, 27th in 2009-10, 25th in 2008-09
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2011, UNC Asheville in the "First Four"
2012 conference tournament: Feb. 27-March 3, campus sites

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