MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) — Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radebaugh has the Big South's all-conference backcourt and a team picked to again take the league's regular-season title. He's also believes his conference can stand toe-to-toe with any mid-major in the country.
Radebaugh's Buccaneers were the favorite to follow its last winter's regular-season title with a conference tournament crown, yet got beat by underdog Liberty in the championship game. The Flames (15-21) became just the second-ever 20-loss team to make the NCAA tournament, which led to questions about the strength of the league since its conference champ had a losing record.
"I'm interested to hear that some of the media think the Big South is down, but I think we have terrific players, an excellent group of coaches," he said Thursday at the league's preseason media day. "Every night is a challenge and there's not a team in our league you can look at and say that's a sure win."
Charleston Southern was picked first in the South Division of the 12-team conference. High Point was picked to take the North, although it received fewer first-place votes than Charleston Southern.
The Buccaneers junior guards, Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper, were both picked for the all-conference first team by league coaches and media, while High Point forwards John Brown and Allan Chaney were also selected. VMI's D.J. Covington rounded out the starting five.
High Point coach Scott Cherry said it was natural for outsiders to see some of the player losses from last year and brand the Big South down. League scoring leader Stan Okoye of VMI (21.5 points a game) was a senior last season while three rising players transferred — UNC Asheville's top-returning scorer Keith Hornsby left for LSU, Longwood's Michael Kessens (13.7 ppg) went to Alabama and Campbell's Trey Freeman (14.3 ppg) is headed to Old Dominion.
"I think everybody saw the defections and started thinking that it's down this year. I don't look at it that way. Gardner-Webb's got a great group coming back. Charleston Southern's got a great group coming back. Liberty's got everybody coming back," Cherry said. "Some of the people think, 'Hey, some of the big guns are gone.' There's still a lot of good teams in this league."
Liberty was last March's biggest Cinderella story. After starting 0-8 and entering the Big South tournament 11-20, the Flames won four in a row to move on to the NCAAs. They came a basket away from moving on in the Big Dance, losing a First Four contest 73-72 to North Carolina A&T.
Flames coach Dale Layer has six seniors returning, including his two top scorers John Caleb Sanders and Davon Marshall. "They all have rings now," Layer says. "So I guess we'll see how we handle success."
Layer, entering his fifth season as Liberty coach, thought the Big South was as strong as he'd seen last year and says the season's far too long a grind to speculate what may happen this time around.
Liberty was picked second in the north followed by Radford, VMI, Campbell and Longwood.
Following Charleston Southern in the south is Gardner-Webb, Coastal Carolina, UNC Asheville, Winthrop and Presbyterian.
Big South Commissioner Kyle Kallander thinks Liberty's injuries early on last season belied a stronger team that would've competed much differently with a healthy roster. "You get into that time of year, you never know," he said. "That's what makes college basketball great."
Kallander understands the allure of dominant league teams like Winthrop, which won nine tournament titles in 12 seasons from 1999-2010, or Coastal Carolina two years ago, which had a 23-game mid-season win streak and finished 28-6.
"The bell cow philosophy is one that is important to conferences like ours because that's what people notice," he said.
Ellis, who led teams at South Alabama, Clemson and Auburn to the NCAA tournament, is confident Big South programs will surprise more highly regarded teams this winter. "You look at the players in the league," he said. "My goodness, how can you not say that it's strong."