Big South Conference Preview: Nick McDevitt, UNC Asheville just keep winning

Rob Dauster
NBC Sports

Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big South Conference.

At some point, a big school is going to figure out that UNC Asheville head coach Nick McDevitt is better at his job than most coaches are at their’s. After reaching the NCAA tournament in 2015-16, McDevitt lost his two best freshman – Dylan Smith and Dwayne Sutton – to Arizona and Louisville, respectively. In 2016-17, despite losing those two, McDevitt’s Bulldogs won three more conference games and a share of the Big South regular season title.

Better yet, McDevitt returns almost his entire rotation from that team, which includes a pair of first-team all-conference performers in Ahmad Thomas and MaCio Teague. With veterans like Kevin Vannatta and Alec Wnuk back and Donovan Gilmore, a transfer from College of Charleston, eligible up front, there’s no reason to believe UNCA will do anything other than push for the league title once again.

After reaching the NCAA tournament a season ago, Winthrop very nearly lost head coach Pat Kelsey to UMass, but after agreeing to a deal and having a press conference scheduled to announce the hire, Kelsey backed out and returned to the Eagles. He’s going to have his work cut out for him repeating last year’s success, as Keon Johnson, who averaged 22 points, is gone, along with four of their top seven from last year. But Xavier Cooks is back, and Kelsey will have a veteran-laden roster around him.

If Winthrop takes a step back, look for Liberty to take a step forward in the conference standings. They finished 14-4 in the Big South and return a number of key pieces, including Ryan Kemrite, a fifth-year senior a,d Lovell Cabbil. Ritchie McKay will also have a couple of younger players looking for bigger roles, namely Myo Baxter-Ball, but their ceiling will be determine by the health of Caleb Homesley. He was averaging 12.9 points, 6.3 boards and 2.9 assists when he tore his ACL, the second such injury he’s suffered, in December.

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Another contender to keep an eye on will be Campbell, who got Chris Clemons back for his junior season. The 5-foot-9 Clemons was the third-leading scorer in the country a year ago, but it is his supporting cast that makes the Camels promising. A year ago, they were young, with the majority of their rotation being freshmen and sophomores. Now, guys like Marcus Burk and Cory Gensler are sophomores, while there is still a nice blend of veterans on the roster; Shane Whitfield, Mogga Lado, Andrew Eudy.

Radford will also be an interesting team to track. They return everyone of consequence from a team that went 8-10 in the league last season. Charleston Southern is going to be interesting with Christian Keeling, who averaged 17 points and seven boards as a freshman, returning with Cortez Mitchell, but losing Armel Potter to transfer was a blow. Gardner-Webb would have had a shot had they not lost LaQuincy Rideau to a transfer during the offseason. Ande Fox and Jamal Wright are both good young pieces for High Point, but it won’t be easy replacing three of their top four scorers.

Presbyterian is going to be hoping that a change in leadership will change the fortunes of the program, former Wofford assistant Dustin Kerns has taken the reins. Longwood won three games last season and lost their two best players this offseason.

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PRESEASON BIG SOUTH PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chris Clemons, Campbell

This one was easy. Clemons, a dynamic 5-foot-9 scoring guard, was the nation’s third-leading scorer a year ago, checking in at 25.1 points per game. The Camels finished last season just 7-11 in Big South play, but they did make a run to the final of the Big South tournament and they do return essentially their entire rotation.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-BIG SOUTH TEAM

  • Xavier Cooks, Winthrop: Cooks proved to be one of the most versatile bigs in the league last season, averaging 16.5 points, 9.1 boards, 2.8 assists and 1.7 blocks for the Eagles as they reached the NCAA tournament.

  • MaCio Teague, UNC Asheville: No one is better at finding under-the-radar talent than Nick McDevitt, and he worked his magic again, as Teague averaged 15.4 points as a freshman with the Bulldogs.

  • Ahmad Thomas, UNC Asheville: Thomas was not only the leading scorer for last year’s regular season co-champions, but he also, at 6-foot-3, might have been the best perimeter defender in the conference.

  • Christian Keeling, Charleston Southern: As a 6-foot-4 freshman, Keeling averaged 17.4 points and 7.1 boards for the Buccaneers.

PREDICTED FINISH

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

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