The Big South conference tournament gets underway on Tuesday with three first round games matching the sixth through 11th seeds. The story of the tournament is Campbell as the Fighting Camels look to ride the back of superstar Chris Clemons to their first NCAA Tournament in 27 years.
Among Campbell's challengers will be regular season co-champion Radford as well as third seed Winthrop and fourth seed Gardner-Webb. With Clemons and the top-seeded Fighting Camels having home court advantage throughout the tournament, can anyone keep him out of finally reaching the field of 68?
Tournament schedule (all times Eastern)
The first round games will be at the higher seeded team. Top seed Campbell will host the quarterfinals and semifinals while the highest remaining seed hosts the final.
First round (March 5)
#9 Longwood at #8 Hampton, 7:00 (ESPN3)
#11 USC Upstate at #6 Charleston Southern, 7:00 (ESPN3)
#10 N.C.-Asheville at #7 Presbyterian, 7:00 (ESPN3)
Quarterfinals (March 7)
N.C.-Asheville/Presbytyerian vs #2 Radford, Noon (ESPN3)
USC Upstate/Charleston Southern vs #3 Winthrop, 2:30 (ESPN3)
Longwood/Hampton vs #1 Campbell, 6:00 (ESPN3)
#5 High Point vs #4 Gardner-Webb, 8:30 (ESPN3)
Semifinals (March 8)
Game 4 winner (N.C.-Asheville/Presbyterian/Radford) vs Game 5 winner (USC Upstate/Charleston Southern/Winthrop), 6:00 (ESPN +)
Game 6 winner (Longwood/Hampton/Campbell) vs Game 7 winner (High Point/Gardner-Webb), 8:30 (ESPN +)
Final (March 10)
Semifinal winners, 1:00 (ESPN)
Clemons, Campbell close strong to take top seed
There simply aren't enough adjectives to describe how good the 5'9'' guard is. Averaging 30.1 points per game, tops in the nation, Clemons enters the Big South tournament sixth on the NCAA's all-time scoring list with 3,136 points and is a good bet to move up should Campbell (12-4, 19-11) reach the NCAA's.
Part of the reason the Fighting Camels have home-court advantage in the conference tournament is because of one of the signature shots of his career: a buzzer-beater to defeat Radford 68-67, part of Campbell's season sweep of the Highlanders, which turned out to be the tiebreaker. They also beat the reigning champions 64-62 in the regular season finale.
There are other elements that make Campbell the favorites. For one, they don't turn the ball over that much (second fewest turnovers in the conference), are second in blocks per game (3.27 a game) and have a big man in Andrew Eudy (11.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 50.6 FG%, league-leading 1.5 bpg) that compliments Clemons perfectly.
Radford, Winthrop headline challengers to Campbell
The Highlanders (12-4, 20-10) tied Campbell for the regular season title with a 12-4 record. Guard Carlik Jones, who sent Radford to the tournament last year with a game-winner as time expired against Liberty in the final, is the defending champions' best player, averaging 15.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game.
Big man Ed Polite Jr. is no slouch, either. Leading the conference in rebounding at 9.8 a game as well as averaging 13.3 points per game and shooting almost 52 percent from the field, the Highlanders are clearly Campbell's biggest threat.
Winthrop (10-6, 18-11) seeded third relies on the senior backcourt trio of Nych Smith, Adam Pickett and Bjorn Broman. Smith, who saw more playing time after the graduation of Xavier Cooks, excelled with a scoring average of 16.9 as well as dishing out 3.7 assists a game while Pickett is second in the conference with a 56.2 field goal percentage.
Gardner-Webb dangerous darkhorse
The Runnin' Bulldogs (10-6, 20-11) tied Winthrop for third in the conference, but lost a tiebreaker and are seeded fourth. Winning eight of their final ten games to surge up the standings, junior forward Ed Jamison Jr. leads the Big South with a 57.6 percent field goal percentage.
Jamison Jr's frontcourt mate, DJ Laster, is also shooting at a high clip with a 53.7 percentage from the floor. Guards David Efianayi and Nate Johnson shoot over 40 percent from beyond the arc, helping the Gardner-Webb lead the Big South in three-point percentage.
Best of the rest
Fifth seed High Point (9-7, 16-14) turn to guard Jahaad Proctor (19.3 ppg, 46.4% FG) in coach Tubby Smith's first season with the program. Christian Keeling (18.6 ppg, 71. apg, 37.6 3-PT FG%) leads sixth seed Charleston Southern (15-14, 9-7), who closed strong, winning eight of their final 11 contests.
Seventh seed Presbyterian (9-7, 17-14) led the conference in assists per game and have a dangerous duo in the form of guard Adam Flagler (15.9 ppg, 85.7 FT %, 38.2 3-PT %) and forward Francois Lewis (15.2 ppg, 37.2 3-PT %). Eighth seed Hampton (9-7, 14-15), look to junior Jermaine Marrow (25.3 ppg, 5.1 apg, 38% 3-PT FG) in their first year in the league.
Who will win the tournament?
It's hard to pick against Campbell for several reasons: Clemons is the best scorer in the country, the Fighting Camels are hot (four straight wins to close out the regular season), the story is too good (they haven't reached the NCAA's since 1992), Eudy gives them a presence down low and they reached the final two years ago, so they have experience.
It won't be easy. Radford has their own dynamic duo in Jones and Polite Jr. as well as being the second-most efficient offense and third-most efficient defense in the Big South. Winthrop can never be counted out simply because of their stature in the league and Gardner-Webb is a dangerously crisp team.
Still, Clemons is too good to not play in at least one NCAA Tournament in his career. Coach Kevin McGeehan has done a brilliant job in building the Fighting Camels up to this moment as well as getting his star guard some help. It will all come together for the program from Buies Creek this week and Clemons will end his career where it should: in the field of 68.
Prediction: Campbell def. Radford