Each time Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radebaugh ran into a colleague from a rival school this offseason, they inevitably told him the same thing.
All of them confessed how much they regretted not recruiting the two freshman guards who spearheaded Charleston Southern's unlikely basketball revival last season.
Saah Nimley, the point guard considered too short to play Division I basketball, started every game for the Bucs last season, averaging 13.5 points and 3.9 assists because of his ability to blow by defenders off the dribble with ease. And Arlon Harper, the shooting guard who had no scholarship offers in late April of his senior year, also won a starting job and averaged 12.5 points, shot better than 40 percent from behind the arc and emerged as the team's best perimeter defender.
"It's really funny how many coaches at the Final Four or out recruiting in July came up to me and said, 'We really, really should have recruited Arlon and Saah,'" Radebaugh said. "I probably talked to 20 coaches who said that. I told them, 'Yeah, you're right, but I'm glad you didn't.'"
The presence of Nimley and Harper is the biggest reason Charleston Southern is primed to contend in the Big South both next season and in years to come. The Georgia natives and former AAU teammates produced better numbers as freshmen than did former UNC Asheville standouts Matt Dickey and J.P. Primm, the guard tandem that led the Bulldogs to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances the past two seasons.
Last year's breakthrough 19-win effort was the first time in Radebaugh's seven-year tenure that Charleston Southern finished above .500 either in league play or overall. The graduation of leading scorer and rebounder Kelvin Martin is a significant loss entering this season, but the Bucs return their other four starters, raising hopes they could make their second-ever NCAA tournament appearance next March.
"We definitely think we can have a big season," Nimley said. "Our ultimate goal every season is to make it to the NCAA tournament, and we think that's very realistic this year. We thought it was a realistic goal last year. We just came up a little short in the [Big South] semifinals."
It's a testament to the scouting of Radebaugh and his staff that Charleston Southern is finally a Big South contender again. They saw potential in Nimley and Harper that other coaches overlooked.
The first time Radebaugh watched Nimley was at an AAU tournament in Aiken, S.C. during the summer before his senior year of high school. Once he realized the player he was supposed to scout was a couple inches shy of the 5-foot-8 he was listed at, he nudged then-assistant coach Bob Richey and said, "This is the guy we're going to watch?"
Barclay Radebaugh (Getty Images)
Charleston Southern beat out Gardner Webb and Jacksonville to land Nimley the following month, not much of a recruiting battle for a kid Radebaugh believes may be one of the best to ever play for the Bucs by the time he leaves. Of course, Nimley still received more interest than Harper did in high school.
Nobody had offered Harper a scholarship by late-April of his senior year, not even Division II or III colleges. Before coaches from UMass and Charleston Southern visited his high school that month to watch him play a pickup game, he figured he'd probably have to enroll in junior college the following year.
Radebaugh only went to watch Harper because he was scrambling to find a guard after several of his previous targets opted to go elsewhere. He had never seen Harper play in high school or on the AAU circuit and only made the trip to Woodward Academy in College Park, Ga. at the suggestion of coaches in Atlanta.
"I'm watching this pickup game, and he's making threes, dunking the ball, leading the break and playing with great enthusiasm," Radebaugh recalled. "I called one of my assistants and said, 'What's wrong? Why is this kid available?' if a kid that good is available that late, there's usually a little bit of baggage, but in this case there was zero baggage. He had great grades and he's an incredible kid. I told my assistant, 'Wow, offer him immediately.'"
The UMass coaches must have had the same impression of Harper because they also offered him a scholarship that day and quickly set up a visit. Harper liked both campuses but he preferred to stay closer to home and he was excited about the chance to play alongside Nimley.
"Being able to play with Saah, that helped make my decision easy," Harper said. "We have a great friendship on and off the court and we complement each other really well. He can break down any defense off the dribble and I've been working on knocking down shots and feeding off him. With him on the floor, it makes my job easier."
The friendship between Nimley and Harper began as sophomores in high school when they played at an AAU tournament together with the Atlanta Celtics. They bonded quickly because of their passion for basketball and similar interests, keeping in touch regularly the next couple years even though their hometowns were about 40 miles apart.
Since enrolling at Charleston Southern and becoming roommates, Nimley and Harper have only become more inseparable. They compete with one-another in everything, from spirited games of one-on-one after practice, to late-night video game sessions to arguments over which teams will miss the NBA playoffs.
All the time together has only helped them feed off one-another on the court. Nimley loves drawing the defense and setting up Harper for an open jump shot. And Harper still gets a chuckle out of seeing opposing defenders underestimate Nimley because of his height and then get torched off the dribble.
"It's always funny to see," Harper said. "Even walking around campus, you hear people saying, 'He's on the team? He's small.' But once they see him play, it's like, 'Wow.' Nobody can guard him one-on-one."
Even though both Harper and Nimley exceeded expectations as freshmen, they still have facets of their game they've sought to improve entering their sophomore season.
Harper has adopted a high-protein diet and put on 10 to 12 pounds of muscle in the weight room in hopes it will help prevent him from getting fatigued late in the season next year. He shot just 35.5 percent after Feb. 1 as a freshman, more than 10 percent lower than he had prior to that.
Nimley has focused on playing right underneath his man on defense to be as disruptive as possible, something he didn't do in high school because he was wary of foul trouble. The coaches have also asked Nimley to improve his shot selection by taking more mid-range shots and floaters off the dribble rather than going all the way to the rim and trying to make an acrobatic layup over defenders well over a foot taller than him.
If Harper and Nimley improve in those areas, it's easy to envision Charleston Southern taking another step forward as a program.
Third guard Jeremy Sexton was once freshman of the year in the Big South before Harper and Nimley overtook him in the rotation. Forward Mathiang Muo is a knock-down shooter. And newcomer Allie Fullah could make an impact in the paint immediately with his combination of size, length and athleticism.
Rebounding and defense are the biggest question marks entering the season for the Bucs, but the Big South race figures to be wide open. Campbell has a lot back, High Point adds high-major transfer Allen Chaney and UNC Asheville and Coastal Carolina sustained massive roster turnover since the end of last season.
"It has been a while since we've had a team that had some preseason hype," Radebaugh said. "Last year, we were picked eighth. We were just another team and we ended up finishing third. This year it's very much a different feeling. We've got to be real careful to handle that maturely. I know we haven't arrived, but I'm also not running from the fact we have a good team."
And with Harper and Nimley only being sophomores, Charleston Southern may stay good for a while.
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