The race for the Big South’s automatic bid took an unexpected turn last week when High Point freshman forward John Brown went down for the remainder of the season with a broken foot. Senior forward Allan Chaney, whose career nearly ended due to a heart ailment, will have to lead the way for a team that is down to two double-digit scorers (guard Adam Weary being the other). Corey Law scored 14 points in their 63-62 win over Campbell, and he has give High Point consistent offense if the Panthers are to win three straight games.
However a possible quarterfinal matchup with host Coastal Carolina looms, and the two-seed from the South (Gardner-Webb) is also capable of knocking off High Point. South Division champion Charleston Southern, led by point guard Saah Nimley, averaged nearly 75 points per game in Big South play while also leading the league in field goal percentage defense. VMI, as the second place finisher in the North, received the other first-round bye in the top half of the bracket but don’t be surprised if UNC Asheville knocks them off in the quarters. Eddie Biedenbach’s team won ten league games, with one being a 90-79 win at VMI on February 9.
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Where: HTC Center (Conway, South Carolina)
When: March 5, 7, 9-10
Final: March 10, 12:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
The Runnin’ Bulldogs didn’t win their division (Charleston Southern did) but they did sweep the regular season series between the two teams. Chris Holtmann’s team enters the conference tournament in good form as they’ve won ten of their last 11 games, with the lone defeat being a surprising 57-54 loss at Presbyterian.
Guard Tashan Newsome (14.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and wing Donta Harper (12.9 ppg) lead the way offensively, and if Gardner-Webb can control tempo (they average 65.5 possessions/40 minutes, per statsheet.com) the Runnin’ Bulldogs are capable of reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time as a Division I member.
And if they lose? Charleston Southern did win the South, the tougher of two two divisions, and in Saah Nimley they have the league’s best point guard. In total four players average double figures for the Buccaneers, who led the conference in both scoring offense and field goal percentage defense. Jeremy Atkinson and Keith Hornsby lead the way for UNC Asheville, but the Bulldogs enter the conference tournament having lost five of their last six. High Point still has Chaney inside but losing a player of John Brown’s caliber at this point in the season may be tough to overcome.
Sleepers: Look no further than the host team, Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers lost just one conference home game this season, falling by seven (70-63) to Gardner-Webb on February 16. Anthony Raffa is capable of getting hot, and fellow guard Kierre Greenwood’s no slouch either. Another possibility is VMI, which averaged 74.7 points per game in conference play and is led by the league’s best player in senior forward Stan Okoye.
– F Stan Okoye (VMI): The Big South Player of the Year, Okoye is averaging 21.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. And Okoye enters the conference tournament hot, as he averaged 33.0 points and 13.5 rebounds per game in wins over Liberty and Longwood.
– F Jeremy Atkinson (UNC Asheville): Atkinson’s only 6-4 but that didn’t stop him from being one of the league’s best front court players, averaging 17.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game and earning first team All-Big South honors.
– G Saah Nimley (Charleston Southern): One of two underclassmen (Brown) to earn first team All-Big South honors, Nimley posted averages of 16.0 points, 5.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game. The 5-8 floor general is one reason why Charleston Southern won 12 league games.
Prediction: Nimley and Arlon Harper take over the weekend, leading Charleston Southern past Gardner-Webb in the final.
Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.