Winthrop dominated the Big South the last two seasons, winning 38 of 42 games against conference opponents and sweeping the regular season and tournament titles. A year ago, the Eagles won their three tournament games by an average of 25 points to claim the program’s 12th championship since 1999.
The Eagles should contend for the crown once again when conference play begins Jan. 5th at High Point, however, expect a wide-open race in the Big South, which has adopted divisional play during the regular season.
Campbell is the North Division favorite. With every key piece back from last year’s Big South runner-up team, the Camels are 7-4 and haven’t allowed more than 69 points in a game this season. Jordan Whitfield and Cedric Henderson Jr. are a dynamic duo in coach Kevin McGeehan’s deliberate attack. The Camels avoid turnovers and take quality shots. Longwood should also be in the mix thanks to forward Leslie Nkereuwem, one of the nation’s most improved players. He’s hit 66 percent of field goal attempts and ranks second in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage (11.7). Smooth point guard Kameron Langley makes N.C. A&T dangerous and he’ll soon have another weapon to feed, the former top-100 recruit Duncan Powell.
D.J. Burns, a big man with a soft touch, keeps Winthrop in the South Division hunt in coach Mark Prosser’s first season. Its primary competition is UNC Asheville - the only Big South team to defeat Winthrop last season. Behind inside-outside combo Tajion Jones and Drew Pember, the Bulldogs have won 5 of 7 entering their opener at Campbell on Jan. 5th. Anyone who has followed the conference for any length of time understands it’s unwise to overlook coach Tim Craft and Gardner-Webb. The Runnin’ Bulldogs struggled in December but have finished .500 or better in league play in each of Craft’s previous eight seasons.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see any of those seven teams (or perhaps another) vying for the Big South Championship, which returns to a neutral site this year, March 1-6 at the Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte, with both the men’s and women’s championship games televised on the ESPN family of networks.
The Corner 3
Transfers dominated the offseason. Nearly 2,000 players entered the portal, taking advantage of the opportunity to have immediate eligibility at their new school and an extra year on the court. Here are three who are making a difference for their new programs.
1. Joe Reece, Bowling Green - After toiling away as a role player for three seasons at Old Dominion, the 6-9 forward is making an instant impact for coach Michael Huger and the Falcons, who are riding a five-game winning streak entering Saturday’s MAC opener at Ball State.
He’s the MAC’s best offensive rebounder, snaring 13.6 percent of missed shots. He’s also hit 56 percent of 2-pointers and 4-of-7 from beyond-the-arc against Division I teams. His 117.6 offensive rating is second in the MAC among high usage (greater than 24 percent) players.
2. Zach Cooks, Hofstra - Sliding seamlessly into the Pride’s backcourt alongside CAA Player of the Year candidate Jalen Ray, Cooks has continued to be a scoring machine. Cooks, a 5-11 point guard, accumulated more than 1,700 points in four seasons at NJIT and reached double figures in each of Hofstra’s first 11 games. He missed the last two games - wins over Arkansas and Monmouth - with a hip injury but is likely to return for the CAA opener tonight at William & Mary.
Cooks has hit 50 percent of 2-pointers, 35 percent of 3-pointers and 76 percent of free throws against D1 teams to help Hofstra to an 8-5 record and solidifies their spot as a clear title contender in one of the nation’s most improved mid-major conferences.
3. Tavian Dunn-Martin, Florida Gulf Coast - After stints at Akron and Duquesne, the 5-8 point guard Dunn-Martin (pictured above) has stepped into a starring role at FGCU. He assisted on 39 percent of the Eagles’ field goals and hit 40 percent of 3-pointers in leading coach Michael Fly’s squad to a 10-4 record.
Liberty has ruled the Atlantic Sun in recent seasons and is once again the favorite, but the top tier is more competitive in 2022 and Dunn-Martin’s emergence earns the Eagles their place in the conversation. Despite his diminutive frame, he draws more than five fouls per game and converts 82 percent of free throw attempts, fueling an offense that ranks top 60 in effective field goal percentage.