As his Coastal Carolina men’s basketball team prepared this week for the start of Big South Conference play, coach Cliff Ellis used the occasion to again tout the strength of the league relative to its modest reputation. Just as he has in recent years, Ellis pointed out the notable results the Chanticleers and their league mates have secured to this point.
He mentioned how Winthrop upset Auburn, UNC Asheville topped St. John’s and played a ranked N.C. State team within two points, Gardner-Webb downed DePaul and played a ranked Illinois team to within one point on the road and, of course, how Coastal stunned Clemson last month with a 23-point rout in Conway.
“The league is just showing so much national presence, so to speak,” Ellis said. “… You put our league up against any mid-major league and it’s proven that it’s right there with others. So I don’t care what the past has been. I know of the [last] five years – this is my sixth year – this league has just gotten to where it’s very, very good basketball.”
He added that he believes the regular-season Big South champion – in addition to the tournament champion – should have a place in the NCAA tournament field. But that’s a discussion for another day, he acknowledged.
The more pertinent concern for the Chants this year is whether they will even be in position to worry about such matters come March.
Coastal opens Big South play Saturday at Longwood with more uncertainty than it’s had the last three seasons while collecting 75 wins and two regular-season conference championships. These Chants (5-6) have just two wins against NCAA Division I competition so far and have shown minimal ability to find offense beyond their three starting guards. Needless to say, they have plenty left to prove.
But, as Ellis also noted, the portion of the season that matters most is just beginning.
“I think there’s a lot of teams making a lot of noise, there’s a lot of games to be played,” he said. “You’ve got to play them one at a time and it all culminates in March.”
As for the first step in that process, Longwood (3-11) comes into this game with its own struggles and setbacks.
The Lancers have played a formidable schedule – facing the likes of Arkansas, Creighton, Georgetown, Seton Hall and Virginia Commonwealth – but they haven’t been close in any of those games and have just one win over Division I competition. They were 10-21 last season and had been playing as an independent since attaining Division I status in 2007 before signing on as the Big South’s newest member this season.
While this will be his team’s first run through the conference slate, Longwood coach Mike Gillian echoed Ellis’ sentiment that everything seems up for grabs in the league race at this point.
“I think what you have in the league from what’s gone on so far is pretty well balanced from top to bottom,” Gillian said. “I don’t think there’s anybody you could say has stood out and is a clear-cut favorite to run away with it, and I also don’t think there is anyone you can say is way behind anybody else. … When you look at the records, I don’t think you can say so and so is 5-6, they’re clearly better than somebody who is 3-11, or someone who is 5-7 is better than somebody who is 7-5 or whatever. As far as we’re concerned, I think we fit right in there.”
While Coastal has its share of questions, Longwood is no doubt the league’s biggest unknown at this point and the Chants will be the first Big South team to get a first-hand look at the Lancers.
Before the season, Gillian touted junior Tristan Carey – a 6-foot-4 guard who started his collegiate career at La Salle – as one of the top players in the league, and he has indeed been solid so far while averaging 14.5 points and five rebounds per game. Solid enough, that is, to earn similar praise from Ellis.
“[He’s] probably as good as any guard in the league,” Ellis said.
The Lancers also have an impressive rookie forward in 6-foot-9 freshman forward Michael Kessens, who is averaging 11.4 points and 9.9 rebounds. The team’s major struggle to this point, meanwhile, has been its inability to protect the ball as it averages 19.7 turnovers per game.
As for Coastal, it still comes down to senior guards Anthony Raffa (18.9 points per game), Kierre Greenwood (12.9) and sophomore Warren Gillis (9.4). Teams have learned that focusing defensive pressure on Raffa and Greenwood is a good way to throw the Chants out of rhythm, and Gillian said that will be Longwood’s focus as well.
And if the Chants are going to realize the potential Ellis believes they have and have any thoughts about the NCAA tournament, they’re going to eventually need to see more from their assortment of frontcourt newcomers.
The results so far have been lackluster in that regard, but again Ellis said, all that matters now is what happens the rest of the way.
“The thing we talk about is play one game at a time, don’t look ahead, don’t look back,” Ellis said. “Be together, be tough and trust each other. That’s going to be our theme.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.