By Collin Giuliani// Sports Editor
Last Season: 7-26 (3-15, 10th place in Big South)
Head Coach: Griff Aldrich (1st season)
It would have been tough to have a better month than the one Griff Aldrich had in March of 2018. As the director of recruiting at UMBC, he was part of the coaching staff that made NCAA Tournament history when UMBC became the first #16 seed to ever defeat a #1 seed by knocking off Virginia. A few days later, he was named the head coach of the Longwood Lancers, becoming a head coach for the first time in his career. Now, he is tasked with turning around a program that has had next to no success as a Division I institution. Since the 2004-05 season, when the Lancers first joined Division I as an independent, Longwood had secured only one winning season, when they went 17-14 during the 2008-09 season. Since joining the Big South in the 2012-13 season, the Lancers have never finished with more than five wins in conference play. And over the past two seasons, Longwood has won just six games in conference play combined.
To make matters worse for Longwood, of their top three scorers from last season, two are no longer with the team, including Byron Ashe, who averaged 12.9 points per game after spending three seasons as a member of Mt. St. Mary’s. While Isaiah Walton is one of the best guards in the conference, the supporting cast around him is filled with question marks. However, there is some hope for the Lancers. Last season, they finished with the worst rebounding margin in the conference, getting outrebounded by 5.4 rebounds per game, which ranked 329th out of 351 teams in Division I. That should improve this year, though, as freshman Abraham Deng, a forward from South Sudan who stands at a towering 6’11”, should provide an impact down low crashing the glass.
PRESBYTERIAN BLUE HOSE
Last Season: 11-21 (4-14, 9th place in Big South)
Head Coach: Dustin Kerns (2nd season)
For a brief moment in non-conference play last season, things were looking promising for Presbyterian for the first time in a while. The Blue Hose had put together a stretch of five consecutive wins, including a buzzer-beater victory against UNC Greensboro. By comparison, in the 2016-17 season, Presbyterian won just five games all season. Even though the Blue Hose struggled in conference play, and went 2-13 on the road across all competitions last year, head coach Dustin Kerns in his first season laid his foundation. Presbyterian has struggled since becoming a Division I institution in the 2007-08 season and has never finished with a winning record overall or in conference play during this time. However, with Presbyterian bringing back six of their top seven scorers from last season, they could be a threat to some teams in the conference this season.
The significant loss for Presbyterian this season is their leading scorer Reggie Dillard. Over his four-year career with the Blue Hose, he finished his career with 1,419 points and was seventh in the conference last season in points per game. While the Blue Hose loses their top scorer, they bring back virtually everyone else. Davon Bell, who led the conference in assists per game, returns to the team. Francois Lewis averaged 18.2 points per game in his final five games before missing the last two months of the season and will return to the team this season to play a pivotal role down low. JC Younger, who finished the season averaging over 15 points per game over the team’s final six games, also returns to the team. While Presbyterian did not have the best of seasons last year, the experience that they bring back to the table this season might be enough to get them a bye into the first round of the Big South Tournament.
Last Season: 23-13 (12-6, 2nd place in Big South)
Head Coach: Mike Jones (8th season)
After winning the Big South Tournament for the third time in program history, and for the first time since the 2008-09 season, the Highlanders are picked to finish first in the conference according to the preseason poll. As the team brings back their top three scorers from last year’s tournament-winning team, there’s no reason why Radford shouldn’t enter the season as the favorite to win the conference. Ed Polite Jr. returns looking to cement himself as one of the top rebounders in school history, and guard Carlik Jones, who won Big South Freshman of the Year honors last season and hit the game-winning shot in the Big South Championship against Liberty to send the Highlanders to the NCAA Tournament, also returns to the equation. Jones became just the third player in school history to win Big South Freshman of the Year honors, alongside Anthony Walker in the 1993-94 season and Whit Homcomb-Faye in the 2002-03 season.
One reason why Radford was able to win the Big South Tournament last season was because of their play on the glass. Radford led the Big South averaging 11.3 offensive rebounds per game, and finished the season with the second-best rebounding margin in the conference, only behind Liberty. Of the top seven rebounders in the conference last season, two of them were on the Highlanders, with Polite Jr. ranking third and senior center Randy Phillips ranking seventh. Radford should remain near the top of the conference in this category this year as well, as they acquired graduate transfer Mawdo Sallah. The 6’8” forward played 21 games at Kansas State last season and was one of the top rebounders in the 2016-17 season in the Northeast Conference while playing for Mt. St. Mary’s. Radford has all the pieces practically in place from last year’s team and is looking to become the first team since Coastal Carolina from 2014-15 to win the Big South in consecutive seasons.
USC UPSTATE SPARTANS
Last Season: 7-25 (2-12, 8th in Atlantic Sun)
Head Coach: Dave Dickerson (1st season)
Of the two teams to join the Big South Conference this year, USC Upstate is predicted to have the rockiest season. The Spartans fired head coach Kyle Perry after just one season, and are on their third head coach in the last three seasons. Dave Dickerson returns to a head coaching role after spending five seasons as the head coach of Tulane from 2005-10; in that time frame, the Green Wave finished with a losing record in Conference USA four times in five seasons and never made it to any postseason tournament. His job in his first season with the Spartans is to turn around a program that was one of the worst in the entire NCAA in team defense.
Senior guard Deion Holmes is the standout player on the Spartans, as he received Preseason All-Conference Second Team honors this season. Holmes averaged 15.5 points per game last season, which was one of the top 10 totals in the Atlantic Sun. However, he loses some support, as while Malik Moore returns, Mike Cunningham, who averaged 13.7 points per game last season, transferred to Oklahoma State and is no longer with the Spartans. Of USC Upstate’s seven wins last season, four of them were against non-Division I opponents; in the team’s previous 33 games against Division I opponents dating back to the end of the 2016-17 season, the Spartans are 3-30, winning less than 10 percent of their games in that stretch. USC Upstate is a young team, as eight of the 14 players on this year’s team are freshmen. These freshmen will have to gel quickly and produce right out of the gate if USC Upstate has any chance of making a run in their first season in the Big South.
Last Season: 19-12 (12-6, 3rd in Big South)
Head Coach: Pat Kelsey (7th season)
For the past five seasons, Winthrop has been one of the most formidable teams in the Big South Conference, recording double-digit wins in conference play in all five of these seasons, and advancing to the NCAA Tournament during the 2016-17 season behind the play of standout guard Keon Johnson. However, while Winthrop is still expected to do well this season and contend for the conference as they seemingly do every year under head coach Pat Kelsey, things could be a bit different this year now that Xavier Cooks, one of the best rebounders in the history of the Big South Conference, is no longer on the team after graduating. Combined with the loss of senior guard Anders Broman, who finished second on the team in scoring last season, and there are some changes that the Eagles will have to deal with this season.
Last season, Winthrop had the best scoring offense in the conference, averaging 79.3 points per game. This marked the third straight season that the Eagles led the conference in this category, as Winthrop became just the third team in Big South history to lead the conference in this category in three consecutive seasons, alongside Radford from 1995-99 and VMI from 2006-11. For that high-powered scoring offense to continue this season, the Eagles are going to need some production out of senior guard Bjorn Broman, who finished last season as an Honorable Mention All-Big South member. Broman was inconsistent last season; he had moments of brilliance, such as a conference matchup against Radford where he scored 29 points, but he also had moments where he went quiet. In Winthrop’s final four games last season, Broman averaged just 4.5 points per game and shot 11 percent from the field. The lowlight in this was a performance in the conference semifinals against Radford where he scored zero points. His play will have to get more consistent if Winthrop hopes to contend for the conference this season.
UNC ASHEVILLE BULLDOGS
Last Season: 21-13 (13-5, 1st in Big South)
Head Coach: Mike Morrell (1st season)
Perhaps no team had more change this offseason than the UNC Asheville Bulldogs. The Bulldogs return just eight percent of their minutes from last season’s team; for perspective, no other team in the Big South Conference returns less than half of their minutes. Head coach Nick McDevitt left to join Middle Tennessee State, star guard MaCio Teague, who finished fourth in the conference in points per game, transferred to Baylor, and Ahmad Thomas, who finished sixth in the conference in points per game and rebounds per game, graduated. The only player on this year’s roster to start more than two games last season is Jalen Seegars, who started six games and averaged 2.5 points per game.
It’s nearly impossible to compare this year’s team to last year’s team because of the drastic changes in all facets. Only two players, senior forward Donovan Gilmore and junior forward Jax Levitch, are upperclassmen, and of the 15 players on the team, over half of them are freshmen. While the new faces will have time to gel, as there are three games on the non-conference schedule against non-Division I opponents (St. Andrews, Milligan, Fayetteville State), non-conference games against Power-5 opponents such as NC State, Auburn and Vanderbilt will test this team while it tries to find its footing after all of the changes. Coach Morrell, entering his first season with the Bulldogs and his first season as a head coach, will have his work cut out for him, as this program is starting mainly from the ground up. UNC Asheville has finished the past three seasons with more than 20 wins and made it to the NCAA Tournament two years ago during the 2015-16 season. However, for a team that hasn’t had a losing record in conference play since the 2006-07 season, this season could be the rockiest in quite some time for a reasonably consistent UNC Asheville program.