Friday, January 28, 2011

Talkin' Baseball (?)...and Plenty More

Okay Big South peeps, this weekend still seems simple enough on its face: Conference match-ups for men's and women's basketball take center stage, right? Sure, but it's not that simple any more, certainly not beyond this weekend anyway.

Here's the deal--Saturday has a full line-up of men's hoops, with five games tipping off throughout the day, plus a quartet of women's games also hitting the court. But January is coming to a close and February is coming in fast, so those games get the most buzz right now, but it's just the tip of an athletics iceberg that will culminate with a parade of championships in the spring.

Put another way, the tennis teams are facing off against out-of-conference foes right now, while the golf teams are rolling out their tournaments, and, most notably, the indoor track and field squads are making lots of noise in various meets around the region. How much noise? Good enough for the men to make the USTFCCCA (it's the governing body, don't worry about the alphabet soup, just go with it) top ten for ALL conferences in the country! The Big South ranked eighth, coming in behind only the six large power/BCS leagues, plus the Mountain West Conference.

Is that all, you ask? Well, noooo...although not under the "Big South Sports" umbrella, don't forget about the wrestling competition happening out there right now for some schools (
VMI, Liberty, and GWU all wrestle...catch the VMI-Citadel competition streaming tonight on the Big South Network). Then there's the swimming and diving, which has been growing, with Liberty joining GWU, VMI, and Radford in the pool. All have been actively competing and await the CCSA Championships in February, featuring the swimming schools from four regional conferences that do not have enough participants to stage their own individual championship meets.

And then there's and softball practice. Seriously, the ball-and-bat sports will hit their respective diamonds soon, and there's a sizable and eager fan base waiting for play to begin. The preseason polls were released this last week, and it probably does not shock anyone following the sports to see that Coastal Carolina had the nod for tops in baseball and Radford the same for softball. In fact, both are getting a little national attention as well.

For baseball, Coastal not only won the top spot in the coaches' vote, but did so unanimously! The Chants will start the season ranked 24th nationally, and will be watched closely to see how they follow last year's Super Regional finish. For softball, Radford will not begin ranked, but the Highlanders have votes in the national preseason polls, so they are not far off the radar.

Interestingly enough, Liberty lurks just behind the leaders in both sports in the preseason count. The Flames matched CCU baseball's unanimous first-place prediction by collecting a unanimous set of second-place votes. It seems clear that the Big South's baseball skippers agree that the 2011 season begins where the 2010 season left off: with Coastal ruling the roost but Liberty burning it up right behind. It wasn't unanimous for softball, but it was nearly as decisive, as the softball coaches made the Radford-Liberty duo a clear one-two.

For those already wanting to get their hands on for spring streaming packages on the Big South Network (presented by State Farm), good news: those packages will be available starting February 1st at Individual games will be available for order soon after that.

Okay, okay, let's get back to the whole HOOPS thing!

Opposite poles? Matter and anti-matter? Call it what you like, but the still blistering-hot Coastal Carolina Chanticleers play at ice-cold Radford Saturday. It's the upset of the year within the Conference if the 1-9 Highlanders stop the 10-0 Chants and their 17-game win streak, "but that's why they play the games"...

As amazing as the Coastal run has been (and it has been stellar), don't overlook the fact that the Liberty Flames have paced CCU every step of the way. The only loss for the 9-1 Flames was to Coastal Carolina, and it will be very interesting to see if that's still the case when these teams meet again: February 3rd in Conway. First, LU will have to dispatch a pesky GWU squad that has shown some resilience after a huge losing skid.

Other games for the men this weekend: Asheville at VMI -- two contenders trying to sort out the seeds behind the leaders, CSU at HPU -- Panthers trying to salvage a rougher season than expected vs. Buccaneers in that contender mix, and Winthrop at PC -- Eagles fighting for position and Blue Hose trying to play perpetual spoiler.

On the women's side, there are four Saturday games and four Monday games, but for the fans of recent Big South history and rivalry, there's only one game to watch for: Liberty at Gardner-Webb, Monday night (1/31, 7pm, on Big South Network). The Flames and Bulldogs are two of the three teams (along with RU) in a tight race for first, but that's just a bonus in what has become one of those rapidly intensifying rivalries...which tends to happen when you battle for the title a couple times, yeah? Conference competition at its best.

By the way, speaking of championships, did you know the Advance Auto Parts Big South Conference Basketball Championships have their own official Facebook page now? It's true. You now have a perfect companion to the Big South Facebook page (covering all Conference news) with the "Advance Championship" page, updating the races in the standings and the pursuit of records, plus the promotions, contests, events, and fans of Big South basketball. Go now and "like" both pages if you haven't already!

While I'm shilling, go follow us on Twitter, please...

For my final shameless plug, don't forget to browse through items at the Big South Online Store. If you haven't tried it yet, you will be surprised by the variety and quality of items available for you to order for your favorite school or for the Big South Conference. It's the best across-the-board merchandise for the Big South membership that you'll find anywhere--and right now (through the weekend), they're running a 15% discount special on personalized team basketball jerseys...go--what are you waiting for? After all, I'm done.

Have a good weekend, everybody...SHOUT--out.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ice, Ice, Baby...Musings on the Week

First came the snow--hey, how nice, it's snowing...but then the ice, and more and more ice, all over the snow, and all freezing into a rink-like glaze over the world. That's how some stretches of Big South territory started this past work week...certainly that's how things got going (or not going) here at the home office in Charlotte, and in nearby Rock Hill (Winthrop) and Boiling Springs (GWU). Asheville of course got even more snow--and then another batch of snow. And so it went, as the early 2011 winter storm that paralyzed Atlanta for a week did its work across our region as well. The women's games scheduled for Monday wound up being played on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, as different schools addressed their area and travel needs in the most appropriate ways they could find.

So the weather stole its share of headlines, but there have certainly been stories from the sports side of the ledger as well. Let's run through some notes...

--Coastal Carolina narrowly beat Liberty last Saturday in the battle of men's basketball unbeatens, and since they each followed up by winning on Thursday, it remains a clear pair of teams at the top: the 6-0 Chanticleers and the 6-1 Flames. Again, watch for that rematch February 3rd in Conway.

--While those two duke it out for the important first seed and the right to host throughout the tournament, remember that the top four teams all host first round games, because that race (presumably for spots three and four, based on Coastal/Liberty so far) will also be a good one. After Thursday's games, SIX teams fit in the range from 4-2 (CSU) to 2-4 (PC/HPU), with marks of 3-3 (WU/ASHE) and 3-4 (VMI) for the teams in the middle. That's a pretty big pack of contenders for just two probable positions...should be fun.

--Those with attention to detail will note two teams didn't make the cut in the previous two items. Well, Radford and Gardner-Webb have both fallen to 1-5 records in the Big South, and it's going to take something big to turn these ships around now, because they have been running hard in the wrong direction. But here's the catch: since PC can't play in the postseason due to the NCAA terms of transition to DI, only one of these teams will be eliminated from the Conference Championship event. As one camper said to another, "I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you." In other words, if one of these teams can slow that descent, they'll get their shot...mind you, that's likely on the road at the top seed, but beggars cannot be choosers in this situation.

--On the women's side, we have a chance at an early treat on Monday, but that will still depend on how things turn out Saturday. Two teams survived to 3-0 starts: Liberty and Radford. They are slated to meet on Monday the 17th, but you have to play one game at a time...RU faces Winthrop before that collision, while Liberty does not have a Big South game in the way (instead playing at Longwood this evening).

--Meanwhile, Gardner-Webb is just one game back of that undefeated duo, and will certainly contend, just as the Runnin' Bulldogs have done so well the last two seasons. Behind those top three teams, the WBB standings are as bunched up as they are in MBB, with four teams at 1-1 or 1-2 (WU/PC 1-1, HPU/CSU 1-2). Two teams still seek Conference win number one: CCU at 0-2 and Asheville at 0-3.

I enjoyed taking part in the Big South's first basketball game to be available exclusively on last night. Liberty won by six at High Point, and I had the good fortune to be on play-by-play (I'm Mark Bryant, for those who don't know the name behind SHOUT), along with Nate Ross as analyst. Nate has been a frequent broadcast partner in both football and basketball, and it's a pleasure working with him--particularly when we get good material to work with, as we did at the Millis Center. Sure, it was really low scoring for a while, and Liberty led most of the way, but the HPU comeback and the excitement of the late second half made for a good payback after the sluggish start. Fun stuff.

Gotta roll on to other things now, but I hope this post has helped update you on the early layout of the Conference races and put the upcoming games in context. Should be a great weekend--get out to a game if you can, or catch the live video streams on the Big South Network if you can't attend in person. Enjoy! SHOUT...out.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Here We Go!

Okay, people, it's 2011, so grab your hoverboards and head on over to catch some hoops.
Sorry, my mistake...we get the hoverboards in 2015...use your jetpacks instead.
Never mind then, I thought this was the future...Happy New Year!

So instead, let's deal with the present, and it's a pretty good one for Big South basketball observers, with Conference play in full swing and plenty of good games out there. It's not perfect, at least not for most teams, but few things are, so let's give a look to life in men's basketball across the Big South right now (we have enough of a barometer to read tendencies on the men's side, but the women have only played one Conference game so far, so we'll save that talk for another day).

I mentioned the word "perfect", and that aptly describes the undefeated starts for Liberty (5-0) and Coastal Carolina (4-0). How timely, then, that these two teams collide Saturday evening! The overall Coastal win streak has climbed to an impressive eleven games and a total record of 12-2 this season. For the Chants, Desmond Holloway has scored at least 13 points in every game this season, the only player in the Big South to have double-digit points every time his team has taken the floor. There's a pretty good amount of talent and depth happening for Coach Cliff Ellis in Conway, and CCU has earned the attention increasingly pointed that way.

Meanwhile, Coach Dale Layer has Liberty exceeding expectations at this point, and anxious to keep his Flames red hot. Solid defense and teamwork have gone along with strong performances at home and on neutral floors (9-1), although the road record could use a little work (2-5). Clutch play from junior guard Jesse Sanders helped last week--now we'll see if he will have the right shot at the right time with the Chants in the building.

Those two teams are the unquestioned top two--and although general appearances make Coastal seem the stronger squad and likely to keep on rolling, it would not be surprising to see Liberty eke out a win in Lynchburg. Whether they do that or not, the Flames had better be prepared for a furious challenge when they meet again in Conway in February!

After the top two, the standings and relative power rankings actually get kind of murky for a while...

Perennial contender Winthrop? Lurking, of course, and always a threat come the tournament, but the Eagles just lost badly on the home floor to Asheville on the heels of a weak offensive showing against PC (that nonetheless netted a victory thanks to Coach Randy Peele's "grind it out" approach to the game). Still, this is a team that knows when to peak, and the answer is not January.

And what about that aforementioned PC squad? Pulling down road wins against Auburn and Wake Forest in the same week remains quite the feat, but what have you done lately, Blue Hose? Up and down performances have brought PC to 2-2 in the Big South and 8-8 overall: they're treading water in another year of waiting for full Division I status. No, they won't be a problem for anyone in the tourney because they can't go, but with the mix of talent and experience they do have, the Blue Hose could be a heckuva spoiler for someone along the way.

So you like lots of points? Then it's time to look at VMI, because once again, the Keydets are scorching scoreboards...on both sides. Yes, a familiar problem--score 87, but give up 109. That's what happened when Coastal came to town. Some teams will go with the flow and others will be swept under, but the familiar pattern of "score a lot, give up more" continues in Lexington. The Keydets have a dangerous team when the shots are falling, and one that often makes for entertaining games, but it is uncertain when everything will come together for that elusive title run for Coach Duggar Baucom.

Speaking of living and dying by your shooting percentages, it's time to talk about Charleston Southern. When senior guard Jamarco Warren and company have the threes raining in from all over the floor, watch out; but when the shots aren't falling, life gets tough for the Buccaneers. So, like VMI, they're a tough out on any given night, but the right defense against them might just make all the difference, just by impacting shot selection and opportunity.

It's finally time to touch on High Point. The Panthers have not found any sort of rhythm this season, nor has Big South Preseason Player of the Year Nick Barbour. Losing the last two Conference games on the road and the last four overall have not helped matters for HPU. This is a team needing a win and needing it soon...surely the Panthers are anxious for Saturday's game at winless Radford.

Beaten Bulldogs? UNC Asheville and Gardner-Webb have had injury struggles dominate their storylines so far this season. For Asheville, it's been a roller coaster that could still see the team contend with enough healthy bodies...but for Gardner-Webb, once leading scorer Jon Moore (out indefinitely) went down, things went south. GWU has now lost seven straight.

Finally, let's touch on's a team that finished 2008-09 as Big South Champion in the NCAA Tournament, opened 2009-10 as a Conference favorite by many, ended last season with a relatively disappointing finish, and has skidded this year to an 0-4 start in Big South games, holding last place in many team stat categories. It's just not pretty for the Highlanders right now.

So there you have it, the quick rundown of what's out there right now for Big South men's basketball. The beauty of it all, of course, is that things can change so fast in this Conference, so what holds this week may not resemble what we're looking at next week, or next, isn't it?

Lineup for Saturday, January 8th:
CSU at VMI, 1pm
CCU at Liberty, 6pm
GWU at Winthrop, 7pm
HPU at Radford, 7pm
Asheville at PC, 7:30pm.


That's enough for me...have a great weekend--get out to one of the games if you can, or watch on the Big South Network, OR catch updates from or our Twitter or Facebook pages! SHOUT--out.