By Brian Mull
Big South Correspondent
Discarding rust that may have formed during a lengthy holiday break between games will be pivotal for Winthrop and UNC Asheville as Big South men’s basketball conference action began this past week.
Neither has played since Dec. 21. Winthrop entered the Christmas holiday riding consecutive home victories, holding off Elon 85-80 to improve to 6-7. Asheville fell by four points at home to Chattanooga, putting a sour finish on an otherwise impressive non-conference run. After winning four games all of last season, the Bulldogs are 6-5 and No. 153 in the NCAA NET rankings.
Both are perennial contenders for the Big South crown and figure to factor in the race again. Winthrop has finished in the top three in the regular-season standings five consecutive seasons. The Bulldogs struggled in 2018-19 as the nation’s youngest team but has been a perennial power, sharing the regular season crown in 2017 and winning it outright the following year.
Winthrop entertains Longwood (5-8), which fell to George Washington on Dec. 28. Asheville travels to Presbyterian (3-10), aiming to avenge three losses by a combined 86 points last season. In other action, USC Upstate (5-8) travels to Charleston Southern (6-6) while Campbell (9-3) entertains reigning champion Gardner-Webb (4-8).
Here are 5 things we learned during non-conference play:
1. Campbell’s defense is stout
The Camels recorded the conference’s best record behind their ever-present full-court pressure defense — forcing turnovers, controlling tempo and shutting down opponents’ 3-point opportunities.
Campbell leads the conference in scoring defense (63.1 ppg), field goal percentage defense (41.0) and 3-point defense (26.2). They are also the Big-South leader in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, holding opponents to one point per possession.
Cedric Henderson, Jr., a 6-6 sophomore forward, leads the team in scoring (12.3 ppg) but is also an elite defender, using his length and athleticism to hound opposing forwards.
The Camels have a deep bench. Coach Kevin McGeehan routinely uses 10 players. They closed the non-conference slate with an impressive 63-55 win at Ohio.
2. Hampton is home to the conference’s scoring leader, but it’s not who you think
Jermaine Marrow, the nation’s leading returning career scorer, tops the Pirates’ Division I career mark. He continued his attack on the scorebook early this season, averaging 24.9 ppg through the first seven games but injured his thumb on Dec. 23 at Illinois and played the next two games before an x-ray revealed a fracture. In his absence, forward Ben Stanley has emerged as a force in the paint, averaging a conference-best 21.2 ppg on the season while also ranking third in rebounding (7.1 rpg).
Stanley poured in 33 points on 9-of-14 shooting on Dec. 28 to lead Hampton to a 70-67 victory over Saint Peter’s.
3. UNC Asheville is fast, balanced and efficient on offense
Asheville coach Mike Morrell promised to accelerate the tempo in his second season and having a more experienced, albeit still young team, has allowed him to bring his vision to fruition.
The Bulldogs combined a low turnover rate and sharp shooting to lead the Big South in scoring (81.4 ppg) and field goal percentage (46.5), fueling their attack with a league-best 9.8 steals per game. It adds up to the Big South’s second most efficient offense (101.5).
They also lead the conference with 72.8 possessions per game.
The balanced attack makes the challenge even stiffer for opponents. All five starters average in double figures and rank in the top 26 in the Big South in scoring. Lavar Batts erupted for 40 points in an overtime loss at South Carolina State, and the next game first-team All-Big South preseason pick DeVon Baker poured in 37 to lead the Bulldogs past Tennessee Martin, 91-72.
4. Radford’s record is misleading
The preseason favorite Highlanders are 5-7 and certainly coach Mike Jones would have preferred to squeeze a couple of more victories out of the Big South’s most demanding non-conference schedule. Radford lost by six at ASUN favorite Liberty, fell by three against Sun Belt contender Georgia Southern and took Southern Conference heavyweight UNC Greensboro to the final possession, falling 60-58.
Sure, those losses sting.
Yet the Highlanders also claimed two of the Big South’s most significant non-league victories of 2019-20, winning handily at Northwestern and dominating a strong Richmond squad 73-58 on Dec. 22 in Washington D.C.
They have the conference’s most efficient offense, hitting 35.9 percent of their 3-pointers in Division I games.
Preseason Player of the Year Carlik Jones is fulfilling the billing. He’s second in scoring (18.3 ppg) and first in assists (5.5 apg). He’s also hit 17 of 42 3-pointers against Division I competition.
5. Russell Jones Jr., gives Winthrop another playmaking weapon
The 5-8 freshman point guard scored 21 points in 16 minutes against Elon, returning from an ankle injury suffered during the Eagles’ 83-70 loss at then-No. 1 Duke on Nov. 29.
It was the fifth double-figure scoring output for Jones, who pairs with versatile 6-7 ballhandler Chandler Vaudrin to give coach Pat Kelsey two playmakers who have contrasting skill sets.
Jones is quick, fearless and an outside threat, hitting 16-of-39 3-pointers. Winthrop increased its offensive pace over the final six games of the non-conference schedule, and having the ball in Jones’ hands will only enhance the transition scoring opportunities. Vaudrin has assisted on 32 percent of the Eagles’ field goals and shares the Big South lead, handing out 5.5 per game.