(Compare to our preseason preview here)
Notable Storylines from the season:
1. Asheville Reloads - The most outrageous aspect has to be UNC Asheville sitting atop the standings tied for first. After finishing third last year (but winning the tournament), the Bulldogs’ two freshman stars, Dewayne Sutton and Dylan Smith, both transferred to elite programs (Louisville and Arizona, respectively). Along with the graduation of defensive whiz Sam Hughes, it should have been a rebuilding year (and remember – Andrew Rowsey at Marquette should be a senior on this team). However, the emergence of Ahmad Thomas as a conference POY candidate and the immediate studliness of superfrosh MaCio Teague (not to mention the team’s swarming defense) have carried UNC-A to a share of the regular season title.
2. Clear Top Tier – Interestingly, per KenPom, #1 UNC-A had the top offense and top defense; #2 Winthrop had the #2 O and #2 D, Liberty had the #3 O and #3 D, and Gardner-Webb had the #4 O and #4 D. It’s pretty rare that the standings settle so neatly in that sense.
3. Longwood, Long Season – The Lancers started the Big South season at 3-0, but the wheels fell off immediately as they crashed to a 3-15 finish. The lesson: let the season play out folks, don’t overreact to early results…
Winthrop snuck into the top seed on the regular season’s final day, winning a tie-breaker with Asheville due to Gardner-Webb finishing 4th (Asheville lost to them once, Winthrop swept them - yes it's convoluted). The spoils for that success? The entire tournament will now be played in Rock Hill on the Eagles’ home floor, save for the championship, which will be played at the highest remaining seed.
Best Team(s) and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed(s): Both Winthrop and Asheville have the talent/style to bother an unsuspecting high seed in the first round (likely as a 14 or 15 seed). Winthrop beat Illinois this year, and they rely heavily on their best two players (Johnson and Cooks) for production as they lead a three-point heavy offense. Asheville, on the other hand, relies largely on their defense. Ahmad Thomas and his insane ball pressure key a rare kind of defensive scheme – one that forces turnovers but doesn’t foul. They don’t have much size, though, so if you can get by their pressure, they’re vulnerable on the interior.
Dark Horse(s): Based on the above stat about the top-ranked offenses and defenses, I’d bet the winner comes from the top group of three, so we’ll go with Liberty here. Liberty is coached by Ritchie McKay, a Tony Bennett disciple, and brings with them a similar pack line defense and balanced offense. Their physical brand of play could be difficult to play against on short rest, though they’re vulnerable to teams who can shoot. They don't have the talent to compete in the NCAA Tournament, so their best bet is keeping the tempo sloooow.
(7) Campbell defeats (10) Presbyterian
(8) Charleston Southern defeats (9) Longwood
(2) UNC-Asheville defeats (7) Campbell
(6) Radford defeats (3) Liberty
(4) Gardner-Webb defeats (5) High Point
(1) Winthrop defeats (8) Charleston Southern
(2) UNC-Asheville defeats (6) Radford
(1) Winthrop defeats (4) Gardner-Webb
(2) UNC-Asheville defeats (1) Winthrop
Winthrop and the 5’7 Johnson fall “short” one last time in the tournament final, as Asheville wins again. Teague busts out on the national stage as UNC-A scares the hell out of 2- or 3-seed (they better hope they can handle the ball), but he does not follow the Rowsey/Smith/Sutton transfer path and stays with the ‘Dogs.