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Brian Mull | | October 17, 2016

College basketball preview: Big South

  Keon Johnson (5) will be a main focus of Winthrop's Big South championship hopes.

The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.

As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.

RELATED: Midnight Madness 2016 times and dates

Here’s our look at the Big South:


Once again, the Big South produced a compelling, competitive regular-season race in 2015-16. Winthrop and High Point shared the title with 13-5 records, while UNC Asheville and Coastal Carolina tied for third at 12-6. 

High Point earned a piece of first for the fourth consecutive season. But star forward John Brown suffered a career-ending injury in the first half of a key 87-85 win over Winthrop on Feb. 25.

The Panthers lost in the Big South semifinals. Brown finished as the only player in Big South history to have 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, 150 blocks, 150 steals and 150 assists. He’s playing for Acea Virtus Roma in Italy this season. 

UNC Asheville earned its third NCAA berth in six years, riding balanced scoring and pesky defense to a 77-68 victory over Winthrop, which was 5-of-33 on 3-pointers in the title game.

The Bulldogs were the 16 seed in the East Region and lost to eventual national champion Villanova 86-56 in the opening round.  

Best player

Winthrop guard Keon Johnson had his worst game at the worst time. After a remarkably consistent season (28 consecutive double figure scoring games), the 5-foot-7 guard was 1-of-16 from the field, scoring just two points in 38 minutes as the Eagles fell in the Big South finals.

Still, what he lacks in size he offsets with shooting and speed. Against conference opponents, Johnson nailed 40 percent of 3-pointers and drew 6.1 fouls per 40 minutes, knocking down 102 of 126 (81 percent) at the stripe. He averaged 20.2 points per game in Big South play (2nd in conference).

Johnson has help in the scoring column. Xavier Cooks is a 6-foot-8 forward ready to make a leap in production. He shot 45 percent on 3-pointers and 59 percent on 2-pointers in Big South games last season.

Campbell’s Chris Clemons is another diminutive guard (5-foot-9) with a nose for the basket. He eclipsed the 20-point threshold 11 times last season to earn Freshman of the Year honors.  

Best team

With two of the best players in the conference on its roster, Winthrop is the obvious choice to make its first NCAA tournament appearance under coach Pat Kelsey. The former Wake Forest and Xavier assistant led the program to a 35-17 conference record the last three seasons but each one ended with a loss in the tournament title game.

  Coach Pat Kelsey's Winthrop Eagles look to be in good shape coming into the season.
Better defense could be the key to reaching the ultimate goal. In conference games, Winthrop was fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency (104.6), and allowed 1.08 points per possession or more in seven of nine overall losses.

Also pivotal is the development of Duby Okeke, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound junior, who blocked 12.2 percent of the shots Big South foes attempted last season. Winthrop returns three starters and four experienced reserves.

UNCA would have been a co-favorite if not getting burned by transfers yet again. Leading scorers Dylan Smith (Arizona) and Dwayne Sutton (Louisville) opted to leave after impressive freshman seasons. The Bulldogs have lost four star guards early in the last five years.

Still, the Bulldogs return three starters and welcome a talented batch of freshmen. 

Sleeper team

Liberty showed promise in coach Ritchie McKay’s return as head coach. McKay led the Flames in 2007-08 and 2008-09 before heading north to spend six seasons as Tony Bennett’s associate head coach at Virginia. 

  John Dawson leads an intriguing Liberty squad that could improve quite a bit.
The Flames finished 13-19 overall but won seven games in a row in February and return every key ingredient except 6-foot-10 center Evan Maxwell, who transferred to Kansas. 

John Dawson, a 6-foot-2 senior, fuels the Flames engine.

He attempted 26 percent of the field goals, assisted on 25 percent of the baskets and was a top 10 defensive rebounder in the Big South. He averaged 13.4 points per game last season. That number should increase.

Freshman to watch

The departures in the backcourt at UNCA create an immediate opportunity for 6-foot-3 guard MaCio Teague, a talented player from Cincinnati via prep powerhouse Montverde Academy. 

“(Teague) is a long armed athletic guard who can play and defend multiple positions because of his length,” UNCA coach Nick McDevitt said on the school’s athletics website. Teague has a real knack for scoring and will be counted on right away.”

Teague averaged 26.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in his senior high school season at Walnut Hills in Ohio.

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