Big South Conference Preview: Winthrop’s favored in a season of change

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big South Conference.

The Big South got hit as hard with departures as any conference in college basketball this offseason. It starts with Coastal Carolina, a perennial title contender and the former host of the league’s conference tournament, bolting for the Atlantic Sun. Then there were the transfers. Four potential first-team all-league players left for power conference teams: Presbyterian’s DeSean Murray (Auburn), Liberty’s Evan Maxwell (Kansas) and the freshmen duo of Dylan Smith (Arizona) and Dwayne Sutton (Louisville) from UNC Asheville all opted to leave.

Throw in the graduation of High Point’s two-time Big South Player of the Year, John Brown, and the league is going to look a lot different this season than it did last year.

The biggest change could be that Winthrop finally earns a trip to the NCAA tournament. The Eagles have lost in the Big South title game for three straight years, but they return enough talent that they should be considered the favorite to repeat as regular season champs. 5-foot-7 lead guard Keon Johnson, who averaged 20.7 points in league play, returns, as does 6-foot-8 Aussie Xavier Cooks. Replacing the scoring pop provided by Jimmy Gavin, who averaged 18.7 points and led the league in three-pointers made, will be tough, but Pat Kelsey’s club returns three starters in a league where returning talent is at a premium.

Once you get past Winthrop, however, the picture gets murky.

High Point not only lost Brown, they lost four starters in total. Scott Cherry has built himself a winner – Kansas, Gonzaga and Stephen F. Austin are the only other programs in the country that have won at least a share of four straight regular season titles – even if he was never able to get the Panthers to the NCAA tournament, but this has the makings of a rebuilding season.

It looks like UNC Asheville, the reigning Big South tournament champs, will have some rebuilding to do as well, which will frustrate head coach Nick McDevitt. Everything was set up for the Bulldogs to replace High Point as the league’s powerhouse – they made the NCAA tournament last season with two freshmen and two sophomores scoring in double figures – but both of those freshmen left for bigger programs. The good news is that both Kevin Vannatta and Ahmad Thomas returned for their junior season, and MaCio Teague headlines another promising recruiting class. But McDevitt has now lost four players to up-transfers in the last four years (Andrew Rowsey is now a junior at Marquette and Keith Hornsby just graduated from LSU) and his program is still winning titles. Imagine if they ever play at full strength?

The most interesting team in the league is probably Liberty. Former Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay returned from working on Tony Bennett’s staff at Virginia for his second stint, and took the Flames, who were picked last in the league in the preseason, to a 10-8 league mark and a fifth-place finish. They play a version of Bennett’s Pack-Line defense, and won 10 of their 13 games last season after Marquette transfer John Dawson became eligible. With four starters back, the Flames are an actual threat to win the league.

The best big man in the league resides in Boiling Springs, N.C. Tyrell Nelson was second-team All-Big South for Gardner-Webb as a junior, and the 6-foot-7, 235 pound low-post weapon should be in line for a big senior season. That’s because only one other starter returns – center L’Hassane Niangane – and he averaged 2.8 points. The Bulldogs have some young talent on the perimeter, but with their top four guards from last season graduating, Tim Craft is going to have to hope that his youngsters learn the ropes quickly.

Charleston Southern and Campbell are the other two teams to keep an eye on in the middle of the league.

Campbell brings back sophomore lead guard Chris Clemons, who could easily end up being the league’s leading scorer this season, while Charleston Southern will try and build around sophomore Armel Potter at the point. Radford lost six of their top eight from a team that went 9-9 in the league, while Presbyterian and Longwood, who finished tied for last in the conference race last season, lost Murray and four starters, respectively,

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

REALIGNMENT MOVES

Out: Coastal Carolina

PRESEASON BIG SOUTH PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Keon Johnson, Winthrop

He’s the best player on the best team, he’s the best returning player in the conference and he’s a guy that had a real argument to be named conference Player of the Year last season. With Gavin gone, expect him to build on the 20.2 points he averaged in league play last season.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-BIG SOUTH TEAM:

  • Xavier Cooks, Winthrop: I think there’s a good chance Winthrop wins the league by multiple games, and Cooks may actually be the second best player in the conference.
  • John Dawson, Liberty: He totally changed the Flames’ fortunes last season.
  • Chris Clemons, Campbell: The Camels may not be all that good, but Clemson is going to put up some insane numbers this season.
  • Tyrell Nelson, Gardner-Webb: The best big man in the conference.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigSouthMBB

PREDICTED FINISH

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