CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A couple of seasons ago, the Coastal Carolina women’s basketball program launched a rebuilding effort coach Alan LeForce hoped would eventually vault the team up the Big South Conference standings. That meant two large recruiting classes, plenty of on-court growing pains and two tough seasons of lackluster results so far.
Now, though, the Chanticleers will hope to see some payoff from their more experienced roster.
The Coastal women were picked seventh out of 11 teams in the Big South’s preseason coaches and media poll, which was released Tuesday during the conference’s media day, but LeForce says he sees the progress of his squad every day in practice.
“There’s nothing better than a kid getting experience, so you can see the things we did last year with those same people – making just what I call silly mistakes – we’re not doing that now. And that’s a sign of maturity,” LeForce said. “[But] again, I can’t harp on it enough, we’ve got to have some leadership. ... We’ve got to develop that. We’ve got to get some people who are mentally and physically tough. If we can get that, then we have a chance.”
Sophomore point guard Shatia Cole would seem a logical candidate to fill that role. The Myrtle Beach High School product had an encouraging debut season while averaging 10.5 points – second best on the team – to go with a team-high 50 steals as a freshman. Her continued progress will be pivotal for the Chants.
Overall, Coastal returns four of its top six scorers from a 13-15 team, but with losses to graduation and leading rebounder Shanika Maddox transferring out of the program, Cole is the only returning player who started more than eight games last season.
“Shatia has a chance to be a very, very good basketball player,” LeForce said. “She has a world of talent. She can handle the basketball, she can shoot the basketball, she can defend the basketball, she’s quick and for her size she’s strong. The thing she has to do is [improve] her maturity. Our point guards are very important in our offensive system. ... She’s got to just settle herself down and get other people involved in the game, being able to make the right play, play the moment. But she is capable of doing all that.”
CSU and Campbell tabbed favorites
Unlike last season, the Big South does not have a proven returning power on the men’s side as reigning league champion UNC Asheville replaces the core of its NCAA tournament squad.
So the league’s coaches and media tabbed two promising programs with top-flight returning talent as the favorites this year.
Campbell claimed 21 of 29 first-place votes in the North Division after a third-place finish in 2011-12 while Charleston Southern collected 16 first-place votes to lead all teams in the South Division after a fourth-place finish last season.
“I’ve tried to figure out exactly why we were picked to win the North, and I’ve given it a lot of thought,” Campbell coach Robbie Laing joked. “... I think what [our] peers are saying is we’ve got enough good players that even I can’t screw it up.”
Campbell (17-15 overall and 11-7 in the league last season) returns two players named to the preseason All-Big South first-team in senior guard Darren White and sophomore guard Trey Freeman. White was fifth in the league in scoring last year at 16.8 points per game while Freeman averaged 13.9 points and shot a Big South-best 87.1 percent from the free throw line while earning the conference’s freshman of the year honors.
Truth be told, Laing appreciates the preseason respect.
“I kind of like it, to be honest with you,” he said. “It helps the kids to understand potentially what they could do. You certainly have their attention. I’d much rather be in this situation than where we were last year, picked in the middle to lower part of the league. We kind of relish in it.”
Charleston Southern, meanwhile, returns four starters – including sophomore guards Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper. Nimley, a preseason first-team selection, averaged 13.5 points and 3.87 assists per game last season.. Harper, a preseason second-team pick, averaged 12.5 points and ranked second in the league with 2.03 steals per game for a 19-12, 11-7 Buccaneers team.
“I feel good about our team. Regardless of where we were picked in the poll, I would feel good about our team,” Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radebaugh said. “... It’s a very, very tough division, tough league. [But] we certainly feel we can compete with anybody in the league.”
Liberty women in familiar spot
Liberty was yet again tabbed the preseason favorites on the women’s side, marking the 15th time in the last 16 seasons the Flames have held that distinction.
Liberty, which received 16 of 22 first-place votes in the poll, returns three starters from a team that finished 24-9 overall and 16-2 in Big South play to win the conference a season ago. That includes senior guard/forward Devon Brown, who was fourth in the Big South with 16.9 points per game and sixth in rebounding at 7.0 per contest.
The Flames do lose standout Avery Warley, now with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, but coach Carey Green is confident in the roster that remains.
That said, he reiterated the preseason poll means nothing at this point.
“We’re going to be led by Devon Brown, whose got the experience and she’s just such a competitive player,” he said. “However, along with that, you can’t pinpoint any other player. We’ve just got so much depth, we’re sort of coming at you with a bunch of unknowns that are all pretty good ball players.”
Preseason players of the year
VMI senior forward Stan Okoye and Winthrop junior guard Dequesha McClanahan were voted the Big South’s preseason men’s and women’s players of the year, respectively.
The versatile 6-foot-6 Okoye, who was the only player in the conference last season to average at least 17 points and 7 rebounds, described himself as a “tweener” after being announced as the preseason honoree Tuesday. Radebaugh, meanwhile, offered another description.
“You are a tweener, but what you really are is a nightmare,” the Charleston Southern coach said, drawing laughs from the room.
McClanahan was an easy choice, meanwhile, after winning Big South player of the year honors a season ago when she led the conference with 21.1 points and 7.2 assists per game. A 5-foot-8 guard, she is just the second player in league history to lead in both categories.
Green, Liberty’s women’s coach, joked that he is from close to McClanahan’s hometown of Oak Ridge, Tenn., and regrets not noticing her earlier.
“I’m not sure how I let you get past my recruiting,” he told her. “... I’m having nightmares.”
Under the radar?
Longwood makes its debut in the Big South this season, and Lancers men’s basketball coach Mike Gillian knows the rest of the league isn’t expecting much from his team. He doesn’t share the same opinion, though.
“The expectations speak for themselves. Everybody picked us last,” Gillian said. “I can tell you I didn’t pick us last. ... It’s a good thing you don’t play any games in the media days; you play those when the season comes around.”
The Lancers men’s and women’s teams were each picked last in the preseason polls, and it wasn’t all that surprising considering the Longwood men went 10-21 last season as an independent program and return only one starter.
Gillian says he’d put junior Tristan Carey up with any player in the league, though. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 13.4 points and 5.1 rebounds per game as a sophomore.
“I don’t think there’s five better basketball players than him in the Big South,” Gillian said. “... He’s a multi-dimensional player, can do a lot of things. In Virginia high school basketball history, in a single season, there’s only two players that have ever scored more points than him. Those two guys are Moses Malone and Allen Iverson.”
The Longwood women were 7-22 last season and return four starters. Coach Bill Reinson said the program – and school – are just excited to be part of a conference now, which will ease traveling, simplify scheduling and offer the other perks that go along with belonging to a league.
“It means the world to our university,” he said. “Everyone – the president on down. They can’t think straight now that we’re in a conference.”
New era at Winthrop
After two straight losing seasons, including a 12-20 mark in 2011-12, Winthrop decided it was time for a coaching change within its men’s basketball program and has brought in former Xavier and Wake Forest assistant coach Pat Kelsey to try to lead the Eagles back to their prior perch atop the Big South.
“Great tradition,” Kelsey said of the program he inherits. “It’s a big responsibility, but it’s something I’m excited about. I’m lucky. My background and pedigree in coaching is at places that also have the same expectation. You walk into Winthrop Coliseum and you look up and you see nine banners hovering over top of you, that’s a pretty powerful thing.
“In fact, when we have recruits come in to the Coliseum I have them count them all. And I tell them, I didn’t have anything to do with any of those, but it’s now my job to take that baton and continue that great tradition.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.