Winthrop will be the biggest favorite since the home-standing natives at Little Bighorn. Perhaps no team in the 22-year history of the Big South Conference has been so loaded. The Eagles return 12 of their top 13 players off last season’s 27–6 championship squad. Coach Gregg Marshall is back for his eighth season with five Big South titles already under his belt. Last year, the 14th-seeded Eagles were just a couple of ill-fated possessions from giving the conference what it needed most -- an NCAA tournament first-round win -- before falling 74–64 to Gonzaga. James Shuler, a chiseled 6-foot-6 senior, is too big and strong for other Big South forwards. One of five returning starters, Shuler was a key in the balanced Winthrop attack with 12.1 points per game. Junior Craig Bradshaw, a 6-10 forward, can bang inside or bounce outside and hit 3-pointers. Junior wing Torrell Martin (13.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg) is a dazzling scorer, and the team’s most important player may just be 5-10 sophomore point guard Chris Gaynor, who averaged 4.6 assists per game.
2. Coastal Carolina (10–19, 7–9)
The Chanticleers have the Big South’s top backcourt in returning Player of the Year Pele Paelay, a muscular 6-4 guard who averaged 16.8 points and 6.0 rebounds, and the Big South Conference Freshman of the Year in Jack Leasure, who chipped in 14.5 points and is already one of the league’s most feared perimeter threats. Add another former guard, Michael Jordan’s old college roommate -- new Coastal coach Buzz Peterson -- into the mix and the Chants think they’re on the verge of something special. They may be if they get consistent inside play from 6-7 Adrian Gross (6.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and 6-5 Moses Sonko (6.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg). The “Buzz” has already helped get a much-needed new arena on the drawing board for the 2007 season.
3. UNC Asheville (11–17, 8–8)
UNC Asheville will again be underrated in the conference and overmatched against a non-conference schedule full of “guarantee games” -- including a late-December matchup with defending national champion North Carolina -- that keep the Bulldog athletic program afloat. By season’s end, veteran coach Eddie Biedenbach will have his team in the thick of things. The Bulldogs again don’t have the big stars -- Biedenbach joked he had “eight second-team all-conference” players -- but seven of them are back, including senior forward Joe Barber, who redshirted a year ago with a knee injury. Junior point guard K.J. Garland, who averaged 10.2 points and 4.4 assists per game, runs the veteran team.
4. Birmingham-Southern (16–14, 7–9)
The weight of expectations and key injuries derailed the Panthers last season. Now, eight seniors are gone and eight newcomers are in. Seniors Thomas Viglianco (11.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and James Collins (9.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg) are back, as is talented Sredrick Powe, who sat out last season with an elbow injury. Coach Duane Reboul has some junior college help on the way, and freshmen LeCory Ruffin and 6-7 Kyle Rowland look like they can play, too. Fifth-year senior Bucky McMillan (5.4 ppg, 2.5 apg) needs to come through at the point.
5. VMI (9–18, 3–13)
The Keydets thought they’d be more competitive in the Big South than they were in the Southern Conference, but in two years in the BSC, VMI has exactly seven conference wins. New coach Duggar Baucom takes over after a two-year stint at Division II Tusculum, and he’ll have some armaments. Forward Reggie Williams was named to the BSC All-Freshman team last year when he averaged 15.5 points per game. He’s one of 13 Keydets back, a group that also includes heady point guard Matt Coward (11.9 ppg, 4.9 apg) and 6-6, 240-pound junior forward Preston Beverly (5.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg).
6. High Point (13–18, 7–9)
The Panthers lost the top four scorers off the Big South’s highest-scoring team, but junior point guard Landon Quick (3.7 ppg, 2.5 apg) is back along with Arizona Reid (4.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg) on the wing, and Issa Konaré (4.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg) inside. Coach Bart Lundy has some talent coming in, including sharpshooting swingman Troy Bowen.
7. Liberty (13–15, 11–5)
Larry Blair (16.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg) is one of the best players in the Big South, but he’ll miss inside-outside threat David Dees, who has transferred to Louisiana-Lafayette. Sophomores Evan Risher and Rell Porter have to grow into expanded roles, Risher at point and the 6-7 Porter at forward. Freshman forward Damien Hubbard and wing guard Anthony Smith can help right away, but the Flames need to light a fire under their big men.
8. Radford (12–16, 7–9)
The Highlanders, who had just two losing seasons in their first 27 years, have now posted four consecutive sub-.500 campaigns. Last season imploded with the suspension of star guard Whit Holcomb-Faye and concluded with coach Byron Samuels remaking his entire staff. Junior forward Chris Oliver (14.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg) can play, and Holcomb-Faye (15.1 ppg, 3.6 apg) and incoming freshman Kenny Thomas should shore up the offense. The height-challenged Highlanders, the worst rebounders in the conference, don’t appear improved in the pivot.
9. Charleston Southern (13–17, 7–9)
New coach Barclay Radebaugh knows how to win in this league. He was Gregg Marshall’s assistant at Winthrop before joining Frank Haith’s staff at Miami for one season. Now he’s back in the Big South, and he’s got three perimeter starters in seniors Terrell Brown (10.0 ppg, 3.1 apg), Thomas Harrison (8.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg) and defensive-minded Mario Williams (2.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg). But the real key will be finding some players in the paint. The return of 6-8 Trent Drafts from a broken foot and the continued development of 6-6 Ferdinand Cain are important.