So far, UNC-Asheville has been the media darling, showcasing its quiet and humble 7'7", 360-pound center Kenny George. The New York Times even got in on the act recently, telling George’s story in a January 9th article.
Recently, UNC-Asheville beat South Carolina in Columbia, bringing their record to 11-3. They then traveled to the real North Carolina—and got the kind of press nobody wants—a loss including a monster dunk by Tyler Hansbrough over the big man himself, Kenny George.
It was the classic “posterized” dunk—and ESPN was happy to show it a good four million times.
That said, it continued to put UNC-Asheville into the spotlight, vaulting them into the top 25 of the Mid-Major Poll.
After finding out his team was ranked No. 22, UNC-Asheville head man, Eddie Biedenbach said, “This is a great moment for our program. We appreciate the national attention our program is starting to get with the wins we’ve picked up this year. There are some great basketball teams in this poll and for our school to be among them is a real credit to our players and coaches.”
A great moment being ranked at 22? Sheesh, what would Biedenbach say if his Bulldogs reached the top 10?
This is the best start UNC-Asheville has gotten off to in 23 years—when none of its players were even born. A close look at their early season schedule reveals a handful of games against teams from major conferences—but the majority against cupcakes. As great as their story has been, you have to wonder if their lack of experience and close games will hurt them in conference play.
Meanwhile, up in Lexington, VA, VMI is finding its groove, running off a nice string of victories. The Keydets’ scoring robot, Reggie Williams, captured headlines last week as he became the Big South’s all-time leading scorer. Williams has been the focus of most teams’ defenses, so his scoring dipped a bit to begin the year. VMI has made adjustments, however, and Williams has been on a tear every since—dropping two 43-point performances in one week.
The team that has been largely ignored so far is—oddly enough—the three-time defending conference champs, the Winthrop Eagles.
Yes, head coach Gregg Marshall bolted for Wichita State, but new head man Randy Peele, a Winthrop assistant the last three years—in which Winthrop has gone an astounding 42-4 in conference play—has picked up where Marshall left off.
This season, the Eagles have already taken down both Georgia Tech and a ranked Miami team in non-conference action. Their overall record, while not spectacular at 9-6, reflects a difficult schedule—including some tough close losses.
While there is always some transition time when a team loses a head coach, Winthrop has senior leadership and tradition working for them.
The Eagles have four starting seniors with tournament experience: steady point guard Chris Gaynor, high-scorer Michael Jenkins, forward Taj McCullough, and small-forward Antwon Harris. Other than Harris, the rest of this bunch has been to the tournament for their entire careers—and they don’t plan on that streak ending.
As for tradition: Last season, Winthrop not only made the tournament for the third year in a row—they became the first Big South team to advance to the second round with a convincing 10-point win over Notre Dame.
Regardless of who wins the Big South, it should be an entertaining conference tournament.
But if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the Winthrop Eagles.