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College Basketball Previews: Improved Big South means picking a winner is really tough

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer
VMI should be much improved this season and is our pick to win the league in 2013. (US Presswire)
Prediction
North
1.
VMI
Keydets
2.
High Point
Panthers
3.
Campbell
Camels
4.
Liberty
Flames
5.
Radford
Highlanders
6.
Longwood
Lancers
South
1.
Charleston Southern
Bucaneers
2.
NC-Ashville
Bulldogs
3.
Coastal Carolina
Chanticleers
4.
Winthrop
Eagles
5.
Gardner-Webb
Bulldogs
6.
Presbyterian
Blue Hose

The shame about the small leagues is the lack of attention year in and year out, when usually there are a couple of legitimate races that form thanks to different, exciting teams. Small conferences can become their own ecosystems of basketball, things unfamiliar to casual and even devoted college basketball fans. A large part of that is the TV deals that, even in this age, haven't reached a point where some curious fan living in Michigan can't peer in on a Big South game.

In this case, it's too bad, because this conference is a good one. And I'm telling you right now: the winner of the regular-season title will be decided on the final day of the regular season. The Big South is capable of sending an assortment of teams to the 2013 NCAA tournament, though it's all but a given that just one will go. This is most certainly still a one-bid league.

So, who should you be looking out for? Glance over there to the right and see my flawless projection for the standings, and you'll know. Charleston Southern is considered a big threat by coaches within the league because the Bucs have four starters back and are coming off a surprising 19-12 (11-7) season.

The league is going to a new format this year with the two divisions, something that I don't really like for conferences. Alas, it is. VMI and High Point will tussle for the top spot in the North despite very different styles. VMI loves to run and shoot and run and shoot. High Point has patience in its game. I'm higher on High Point than most, and a lot of that is due to Virginia Tech transfer Allen Chaney. He will play with a defibrillator in his chest after sitting out two years with heart ailments.

Coastal Carolina has as good a player as the Big South has to offer in Anthony Raffa but loses its whole frontcourt from a year ago. Big concern there. Coastal most likely will suffer the biggest drop in the league because they really dominated the regular season in years past. And because that's unlikely to be duplicated, they'll be seen as less dominant. And rightfully so. But this team does have one huge advantage: the league championship will be played on its home floor.

Elsewhere, Liberty was hit hard with injuries -- two ACL tears to two starters. And with six new players, it's still an unknown as to what that team can be. Winthrop lost four starters and has a new coach in former Xavier assistant Pat Kelsey (who stepped away from the game for one year), so there's some rebuilding there. This is a guard-oriented league. When teams get really solid, reliable post players, those teams inevitably separate into the top two spots in the standings.

Coach's take

"I would say the North is a little stronger than the South this year. Charleston Southern lost just one good player. I think Asheville lost good guards but their starting center, (D.J.) Cunningham, is back from an ACL and they've got two really good wings back who will score a lot of points. They were deeper probably than people thought last year. They'll probably be better than what they look on paper.

"Last year was the best I had seen the league, top to bottom. You could go almost anywhere and lose on the road, and that's the first time I thought that could happen with [the league]. Asheville, Campbell and Coastal have new, upgraded facilities and that's helped the league bring in better recruits and improve it overall from four, five years ago. This year I think the top half will be every bit as good as last year's top seven. But I don't think the bottom teams will be as good as they have been in the past. Player-wise, Raffa is terrific ... and Nimley is a super-exciting player. He shocks you with how good he is, even though he's really diminutive."

The league's best

  • Preseason Big South Player of the Year: Anthony Raffa, Coastal Carolina. Slight, 6-1 guard who is a fearless and successful defender in addition to being an offensive weapon. Will carry the team alongside Kierre Greenwood.

  • Stan Okoye, VMI. Senior combo player who put on 10 pounds to reach 215. Will likely score from everywhere from two to 20 feet for the Keydets, who'll no doubt average close to 80/game.

  • Darren White, Campbell. It's nothing but guards here, which is typical in the Big South. White averaged 17 points per game in 2011-12.

  • Saah Nimley, Charleston Southern. He's only 5-8, but pound for pound is one of the best players in the country.

  • Jeremy Atkinson, Asheville. 6-4 guard who had a true shooting percentage of 62.0 last year. That'll hurt a team or two.

Numbers to Know

1.09: Asheville was the Big South's tournament rep last year, winning the regular season and the conference title because it could score. Eddie Biedenbach's team scored nearly 1.09 points per possession, far ahead of the league's second best team (High Point at 1.035).

7/11: You want a league with balance? Last year for the first time, seven teams won between seven and 11 conference games. And only Radford failed to get double-digit wins.

11.5: Longwood, which spent the past eight years as an independent, is new to the league and has averaged just 11.5 wins per season in its D-I existence. Long way to go.

Previously in previews:

No. 27 -- Southland
No. 28 -- Big Sky
No. 29 -- America East
No. 30 -- MEAC
No. 31 -- Great West
No. 32 -- SWAC

For more college basketball news, commentary and discourse, follow @EyeonCBB and @MattNorlander on Twitter. And be sure to like us on Facebook.

 
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