Before each and every season Coastal Carolina men’s basketball coach Cliff Ellis makes a point to trumpet the strength of the Big South, usually saying the conference is as good as he’s seen it.
This year, though, few could disagree with him – especially at this point.
The Big South men’s basketball tournament tips off Wednesday with first-round games at The HTC Center, and the general consensus is that there are seven legitimate contenders for the championship and the conference’s automatic berth into the NCAA tournament.
Ellis reiterated that point again this week after seeing how the tournament seedings shook out on the bracket.
“What blows me away is when I see the seventh team and what they’ve done with regards to it,” Ellis said, referring to No. 7-seeded Gardner-Webb. “They’ve beat us twice and they beat Purdue and Clemson. That’s your seventh-place team? I mean the question I would ask is where would Clemson and South Carolina finish in this league? Where would they finish in this league? So that’s something to be proud of.”
Top-seeded Charleston Southern, No. 2. High Point, No. 3 Coastal Carolina, No. 4 Radford and No. 5 Winthrop all have byes in the first round and won’t play until the quarterfinals on Friday.
But as Ellis noted, few would be surprised to see No. 6 UNC Asheville or No. 7 Gardner-Webb making a deep run in the tournament.
At one point back on Feb. 7-8, all seven of those teams were tied for first place in the standings.
“I’m proud of what this league has done,” Ellis said. “It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen since I’ve been here. And I can’t tell you what’s going to happen. I just want us to bring our best.”
Coastal Carolina (21-9, 12-6 Big South), which was in the hunt for the conference’s regular-season championship until being upset by Presbyterian last Thursday, has home-court advantage once again in its third consecutive year hosting the event and comes into the week as the defending champion of the conference tournament.
The Chants will await a quarterfinals matchup Friday against the winner of No. 11 Liberty (8-23, 2-16) and UNC Asheville (14-15, 10-8), which meet in the first round Wednesday night.
While the Chants went 4-1 against the other top four seeds during the regular season, they also have seen their own vulnerability with that loss last week to the No. 8-seeded Blue Hose.
“It’s a tough field. There’s not any team that can’t come in and win a game so for each team the focus is focusing on that one game, not the next game, the next round or whatever,” senior guard Warren Gillis said.
The last two years the top seed has been defeated with Coastal Carolina winning as the No. 3 overall seed (albeit top seed from what was then the South Division) last year and Liberty winning as the No. 10 overall seed (fifth seed from the North Division) two seasons ago.
And what will happen this week is anybody’s guess.
“It’s going to take everybody being at their best,” Ellis said. “Whoever wins has to be at their best, they’re going to have to get a break, but everybody just comes in this week, fights hard and you just see what happens. That’s all you can do.”